Will smart cities necessarily be lonely cities?

This piece thinks about how smart cities might affect social relationships and the prognosis is not good:

By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population will be living in so-called “smart cities.” These are metropolitan areas where everything will be digitally connected. Today, some people have “smart” thermostats, refrigerators, or smoke detectors. Tomorrow, we’ll have smart hospitals, farms, and highways, and it’s likely they’ll all talk to one another. Connected devices will monitor everything from air quality to energy usage and traffic congestion…

We can also expect more part-time work, distance working, and the blurring of our work and personal lives. Some worry that the rise of robots could force governments to legislate for quotas of human workers.

But city-dwellers will see incremental changes outside of their workspace, too. Thanks to self-service checkouts and home delivery services, technology is creating less of a need for us to actually interact with those around us. Message bots, like Google Assistant, Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa, will soon be able to suggest restaurants, hotels, and other local landmarks. This is already happening in places like Tel Aviv, where everyone over the age of 13 can receive personalized data, such as traffic information, and can access free municipal Wi-Fi in 80 public zones. Populations will be encouraged to make good use of these ever-personalized digital services, since this gives companies our precious data, which will be integral to smart cities…

But it’s doubtful that these interventions will be enough to counteract further encroachment of technology on cities’ infrastructure. Resistance needs to be on a grander scale. One solution may lie in the preservation of public spaces such as parks, community centers, cafes, and shops. “If cities are to remain viable places for people to develop the strong associational and social life fundamental to healthy human existence they must incorporate a range of public spaces and ‘third’ places outside of work and home, in which urban citizens can come together,” writes John Bingham-Hall, a researcher at London School of Economics and Political Science.

I’ll throw out two counterpoints that might lessen the concern:

  1. While new technology could move us toward more private lives, it doesn’t necessarily have to. We don’t have to end up in a futuristic setting and narrative as depicted in Her. Such claims have been made for centuries with the spread of industrialization and urbanization: new technologies would reduce the humanness of life. Think of the Luddites and their concerns about changes to manufacturing in the early 1800s. Marx was also worried about the alienation being brought about by the forces of industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, we could theoretically end up with more time for social interaction if these new technologies free us up. We’ve heard these promises for decades: people won’t have to work as much or take care of their possessions because it can be done for them. (Put it this way: what does it say about us that even though we have devices to help us reduce our labor, we continue to labor a lot? Are we trying to escape more social interaction?) I would ask: are we blaming the technology too much or should we think harder about how we could utilize what has been invented for our common good?
  2. Early sociologists were concerned about the individual being lost in the big cities of the modern world or noted that city life was a major change from small village life to which many in the world had grown accustomed. (See the work of Simmel, Durkheim, and Tonnies.) Yet, cities continue to attract people and social life continues – even if it has changed in certain ways. Still today, it seems that it might be important that people are around other people regularly (which commonly happens in dense cities), even if they don’t have strong relationships with many people. I would ask: is it really cities that are in danger of being lonely places or would the technology affect everyone in similar ways in coming decades?

Smart cities don’t have to be lonely cities. We could be lonely all over the place or we could make decisions about how to direct technology toward things we might want (such as increased or deeper social connections).

Niche names Naperville 2nd best place to live

This is not an uncommon accolade for Naperville: Niche recently named the suburb the second best place to live in the country.

Niche looked at 228 cities and more than 15,000 towns and based rankings on crime rate, public schools, cost of living, job opportunities and local amenities…

Niche also took into account reviews from residents in the various cities and towns. Out of the 397 reviews, 111 people gave Naperville an “excellent” rating, 187 said it is “very good,” 91 called the city “average,” six said it is a “poor” place to live and two said it is “terrible.”

Naperville got an A+ for both its public schools and being a good city for families, an A in diversity, an A- in housing and a B+ in both nightlife and crime and safety.

Niche ranked Ann Arbor, Mich., the best city to live in America. Rounding out the top five cities to live in America are Arlington, Va.; Columbia, Md. and Berkeley, Calif.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. In Money‘s 2016 rankings of the best places to live, Naperville was #10.
  2. Including reviews from local residents is an interesting twist. Why did a few respondents give Naperville a poor rating? Weather and a few other issues. And the two terrible ratings are both related to the state of Illinois.
  3. Where doesn’t Naperville do well? A C+ for cost of living as well as for weather.
  4. The top five cities are all within major metropolitan areas where they are sizable communities but nowhere near the biggest community. This may be notable until you look at Niche’s list of the “best places to live” and there you find smaller suburbs.

A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

Why Americans do or do not move

An article about the most and least mobile cities in the United States includes some discussion of what pushes people to move or to stay put:

“There are two main determining factors whether people move or not,” says Nathalie Williams, a sociology professor from the University of Washington. The good: “The better people feel their lives are going, the less likely they are to move elsewhere.”  The bad: Lousy economies can force people to head for greener pastures.

But of course, economic insecurity can also keep people in the same place.

After the housing bust in 2007, migration slowed down, because uncertainties about the job market had made people nervous about changing jobs and deciding to move on. They were less likely to upgrade to a bigger and nicer home. Plenty even found their homes deep underwater, and were unable to sell.

Now that the recession is over, mobility is finally picking up again, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. And jobs lure people, especially younger ones who haven’t put down deep roots, to new centers of employment.

The short explanation is that economic factors are influential. But, there may be three caveats to this: (1) movement can occur because of either a good or bad economy, (2) it may depend on people’s stage of life, and (3) perhaps there is more to this than economics. Regarding the first point, the article juxtaposes Detroit and Honolulu, the two cities that are least mobile. These are two very different places: one is doing well, the other is not. Later, it is noted that several of the most mobile places are college towns with populations that are more transient (this involves students but also others whose jobs in academia and related industries can lead them from college town to college town). Finally, the description of life in Honolulu cites some economic factors (low property taxes) but also includes a unique cultural setting that some enjoy.

In the end, I’m not sure this article does much to help explain why people move. They move less when economic times are good and bad. Certain places are more mobile because of institutions that encourage transience (colleges) while other places have quality of life traits that discourage moving. Does this mean the most mobile places are somewhere in the middle of these rankings? Or, is it all relative to what people in the region have experienced in recent years?

Debating whether Detroit is on an upward trend

There is some disagreement about whether Detroit is on the rebound:

Michigan State political scientist Laura Reese and Wayne State urban affairs expert Gary Sands have written an essay “Detroit’s recovery: The glass is half-full at best,” for Conversation, which was reprinted at CityLab as “Is Detroit Really Making a Comeback?” The article is based on a longer academic treatment of this subject by Reese, Sanders and co-authors, entitled “It’s safe to come, we’ve got lattes,” in the journal Cities.  (This is one of those rare cases where the mass media version of an article is more measured and less snarky than the title of the companion academic piece, but I digress.)

Reese and Sands set about the apparently obligatory task of offering a contrarian view to stories in the popular press suggesting that Detroit has somehow turned the corner on its economic troubles and is starting to come back. We, too, are wary of glib claims that everything is fine in Detroit. It isn’t. The city still bears the deep scars of decades of industrial decline coupled with dramatic failure of urban governance. The nascent rebound is evident only in a few places.

And the opposite position:

It’s going to be a long, hard road ahead for Detroit. And that road will lead to a different and smaller Detroit than existed in, say, the 1950s. That road is made even harder by critics who damn the first few candles for shedding too little light.

While the debate is about Detroit’s fate, it hits on important larger questions: at what point can experts know whether a city is on the decline or on the way up? Who gets to make such pronouncements and with what data? While we are in the moment, when is a trend clearly a trend? Even a consensus of experts may not be good enough; they can all be wrong.

The more complicated answer is that it takes time and lots of data to know for sure what is happening. This is not comforting if things are going bad; there is often a lot of post-hoc analysis of what could have been done in the moment but such moments are difficult to handle. (Think about the public discussions regarding the economic crisis of the late 2000s and what lessons should be drawn from the Great Depression and similar events.) And if the situation has been bad for a long time, people do want to find hope and build on good happenings.

For those of us looking on from a distance, perhaps the best we can do is wait and hope for positive change in Detroit which likely includes both new activities as well as difficult decisions about moving on from past arrangements.

Apartment construction increases in the Chicago suburbs

The construction of apartments in the Chicago suburbs reached some high marks in 2016:

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, more apartments were opened last year than in any time in the past 20 years and demand for those units meant suburban rents grew more than the increases downtown, according to research by Appraisal Research Counselors…

The rents in new or almost-new units in the suburbs increased 6.7 percent in 2016, while they increased just 2.85 percent downtown, according to Appraisal Research. The median rent was just $1.39 per square foot in the suburbs in 2016, while downtown it was $2.89 a square foot for space in a newer building. In other words, for 1,000 square feet a renter would pay on average $1,390 in the suburbs and $2,890 for one of the new downtown apartments. An older but well-kept Class B building downtown would be $2.52 a square foot, or $2,520 for 1,000 square feet…

The strongest occupancy in 2016 was in DuPage County, with 95.7 percent of the apartments full and the median price of a two-bedroom apartment at $1,315. Northwest Cook County was 95.4 percent full with a two-bedroom apartment averaging $1,390. The weakest area was the North Shore at 93.8 percent occupancy and a two-bedroom apartment at $2,446…

“From Schaumburg to Naperville, you are starting to see new construction,” said Stephen Rappin, president of the Chicagoland Apartment Association. It’s a trend that’s occurring nationally after the surge of construction in downtown areas.

This is where the debate between whether cities are growing or suburbs will win the day breaks down. What if the American future is denser suburban development and a shift away from single-family home ownership even as people stay in the suburbs? This would represent a change from “typical” suburban life – single-family home, lawn, lots of private space – while better mimicking some urban conditions such as denser housing, renting, and giving up a home to be near certain amenities.

As this article suggests, it is not surprising that the suburban apartment demand would be high in places with more economic and quality of life opportunities, places like Schaumburg and Naperville that have little greenfield space but where people would still want to live. Just like Chicago where apartment construction has boomed in the Loop but lagged elsewhere, a similar process will likely take place in the suburbs. This may be good for developers since there will be high demand for certain places but isn’t necessarily good for aiding issues of affordable housing.

Can you say you are from a city when you actually live in its suburbs?

The debate continues on whether suburban residents can claim to be from the big city:

Fowler was criticizing Trump for bashing Chicago while failing to reach out to Gov. Bruce Rauner about potential solutions. When he says “I’m from Chicago,” he’s quickly cut off by Caldwell whose “Bruh, you’re from Evanston” comment quickly excited Chicagoans on Twitter…

Perhaps this is even a bigger issue in Chicago where identification with a neighborhood or community area is very common among urban residents.

While suburban residents shouldn’t try to boost their image by claiming to be from the big city when they aren’t, they are in a difficult place when talking to people from outside of the region. When meeting someone, telling them the name of your suburb can often produce blank stares. The Chicago region has hundreds of communities of varying sizes and it is difficult to expect people to know even most of them (even if they are from the region). The big city becomes a kind of shorthand of where you are from. One other option that might work could be to identify a noteworthy or large suburb that others may know – I’ve been surprised how many people register some familiarity when I say I live near Naperville.

Additionally, there are certainly instances when saying you identify with the big city does make sense. Sports teams are the first example that comes to mind. There are very few American major sports franchises that identify with the suburbs. The only two that come to mind are the Long Island Islanders and the New Jersey Devils but they are from the largest region in the country and there are three hockey teams to differentiate. There are certain resources that big cities have that suburbanites could identify with, such as major airports (many people who have spent little time in the Chicago region can hold some kind of conversation about O’Hare Airport) or museums and cultural attractions.