National political leaders’ connections to cities, urban areas, and population centers

In thinking over the (dwindling) 2020 Democratic field for president, I wondered whether national politicians on the whole come from big cities and metropolitan regions. Some (somewhat incoherent) thoughts on the possible connection:

1. The United States is an urbanized country with a little over 80% of residents living in metropolitan areas. Most people live in these places, more politicians come from these places.

2. Politicians need to connect to large pools of voters before they hit the national stage. They can do that in sizable regions/cities and build a base before seeking a larger presence.

3. If national politicians do not necessarily connect with cities, it still seems to help to come from a more populous state where they have appealed to more voters and can make a stronger case about facing complexity before addressing a national stage. I’m thinking of George W. Bush who had numerous connections to Dallas, came from Texas, yet seemed to prefer more rural life in Crawford. He may not have been an urbanite but he had enough connections and experience in one of the most populous cities and states. In contrast, politicians like Bill Clinton or Nikki Haley might have to work harder to reach the national scene coming from less populous states or communities or those operating in second tier cities or regions like Jay Inslee in Washington state or Amy Klobuchar in Minnesota.

4. Does social media help candidates breakthrough an urban/rural divide? If the ultimate outcomes still come to votes, probably not.

5. Is there a major candidate or figure in any party who truly exemplifies a suburban lifestyle? I can think off the top of my head of numerous figures from big cities and others from more rural areas but who is a suburbanite in an era when political elections are decided by suburban voters?

Palaces for the People, Part 2: place-based rather than people-based interventions

I recently read Eric Klinenberg’s 2018 book Palaces for the People. For a few days, I am highlighting a few short passages from the book that make some interesting connections regarding physical places.

In a discussion of policing, crime, and spaces, Klinenberg highlights research showing resources put into improving places can improve social relations:

The Philadelphia studies suggest that place-based interventions are far more likely to succeed than people-based projects. “Tens of millions of vacant and abandoned properties exist in the United States,” write Branas and his team. Remediation programs “make structural improvements to the very context within which city residents are exposed on a daily basis.” They are simple, cheap, and easily reproducible, so they can be implemented on a larger scale. What’s more, they impose few demands on local residents, and the programs appear to pay for themselves. “Simple treatments of abandoned buildings and vacant lots returned conservative estimates of between $5.00 and $26.000 in net benefits to taxpayers and between $79.00 and $333.00 to society at large, for every dollar invested,” their paper in the American Journal of Public health reports. It’s not only more dangerous to leave the properties untended; it’s also more expensive. (70)

Imagine vacant properties in many American cities, particularly in the Rust Belt, transformed. Keeping up the property over time could help show local conditions will not be allowed to decline. Even as residents may come and go, the community is committed to the lot.

But, I wonder how much push back there would be from the public. A typical approach to struggling communities is to argue for more job and educational opportunities. If this works, it gives people options and skills they can then use anywhere over time. Such investments are viewed as showing residents that the community cares about their lives. Would putting resources into places be perceived in the same way?

Generally, infrastructure is pretty invisible in American life. Focusing on vacant properties, very noticeable to both people in the community as well as visitors, might help reverse that.

Building a town for training foreign agents

A new training center gives US foreign service agents an opportunity to learn how to move and operate in an urban setting:

Take the 19 miles of intertwined roads that replicate virtually every type of automotive interchange, intersection, and interstate likely to carry the federal agents tasked with protecting US diplomats and citizens around the world. They include traffic-free driving circles, twisties, and long highway sections where agents learn to evade ambushes and intercept suspects. The tree-lined labyrinth is both a tempting playground and a post-apocalyptic vision of suburban emptiness.

The nearby off-road course includes a simulated rocky riverbed, a real sand pit, a craggy hill, and cement staircases. Agents weave Jeep Wrangler Rubicons through a field of moguls. Elsewhere on the 1,300-acre compound you’ll find a rappelling wall, an explosives range, and live fire “shoot house.” In the “smokehouse,” agents learn to escape burning buildings. In the tactical maze—a warehouse holding dozens of interconnected rooms—teams of agents practice security missions. They bust down doors and stalk their enemies, while instructors observe from catwalks.

All wild stuff, but nothing compared to the centerpiece of this new training center: the “military operations in urban terrain” simulator. Also known as the MOUT, this is a proper town, complete with back alleys, main drags, and a life-size US embassy compound. The multistory buildings sport rooms, stairs, balconies, and rooftops, all of which can serve as stages for faux bad guys or the agents securing the structure while managing a search, evacuation, or watching over a motorcade. The only thing missing is a Starbucks on every corner—or any other permanent set dressing. The town is a blank, reusable canvas that can be modded to play a global capital or developing nation’s unkempt urban center. Actors interact with agents; networked speakers replicate rumbling tanks, bleating goats, midtown Manhattan traffic, and more…

So much for having fun. A pronounced aura of menace colors exploration of even the empty facility, as I discovered during a visit the day before it officially opened. As I went from door to door and floor to floor at twilight, it was easy to sense what agents will face: uncertainty and unfamiliarity, speckled with chaotic radio chatter, aggressive crowds, small arms fire, even pyrotechnics. “It’s designed to make it as realistic as possible, in order for the brain to really make the synapses kick together and go ‘Yeah, this is real life,’” said facility director Bob Weitzel.

Having a training ground seems to make sense: executing maneuvers in a stressful moment could be easier if someone has tried something similar before. At the same time…

1. How much can a training ground like this really replicate complex communities around the world? Having the physical space is one thing but then adding the layers of people and meaning would be really hard to achieve. The article hints at the ways they get at simulating an experience but I would wonder how much it matches reality.

2. It would be interesting to know how much more successful agents are after training in a facility like this versus learning through other means. How much difference does having a tangible training ground make? How many hours does an agent need in the simulated settings to feel comfortable?

3. I wonder how this setup differs from a Hollywood backlot. Did the creators of the training ground borrow from what movie and television producers regularly do?

Move to the big city to live in a capsule

Difficulty in finding cheaper housing means Americans moving to a big city might consider living in a capsule:

Each room contains up to six capsules, which Wilson describes as “cozy.” They contain a single bed, a bar for hanging clothes, a few compartments for storing shoes and other items and an air vent.

By most standards, the accommodation is still not cheap — $750 per month plus taxes. That works out at around $800, which is slightly more than the 26-year-old was paying in Bethlehem, around 70 miles outside Philadelphia…

Cheaper options exist, but UP(st)ART offers a good, central location and modern buildings equipped with a gym, dance classes, recording studio, art workshop and free cleaning and laundry services…

Still, the capsule-living concept is also catching on in other expensive US cities including New York.

The key redeeming feature to these capsule in Los Angeles appears to be that it is located within an artistic community. Capsule inhabitants may not get much in terms of space but they are plugged into a set of like-minded people and have attached facilities they can use.

On the other side, imagine capsules with no community. Would people be willing to rent/occupy those and at what price point? Would it be worth it to have a roughly 31 square foot area for $800 a month in Manhattan? Would the price drop significantly if the capsule was in one of the other boroughs of New York? Or, imagine capsule for people who are not so free to simply pick up and move. Where would you go if you had a spouse? A child?

Both of these could be true:

  1. There is a needed for cheaper housing in many American cities so that young people can get their feet on the ground and start down a path toward adult success.
  2. There might be relatively cheap housing available in many locations, either in smaller cities or neighborhoods beyond the most attractive ones in cities. But, a good number of young adults want to go to the most exciting places such as New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, neighborhoods with lots of millennials such as in Chicago, etc..

Reminder: only 17% of the jobs in the Chicago region are downtown

An article I posted about earlier in the week included this statistic:

Downtown Chicago accounts for 17% of jobs in the six-county region, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security…

But most of the region’s jobs — almost 3 million — are outside of downtown and may require more complicated commutes. More than 400,000 people commute every day from Chicago to jobs in the suburbs, according to the Regional Transportation Authority

This 17% is still a sizable percentage of jobs within the region. Put those jobs together with other economic resources, cultural opportunities, political resources, and historical inertia and the Loop is still a center of the region.

But, this also suggests 83% of the jobs in the region are outside Chicago’s downtown. Many Chicagoland residents do not need to go near downtown for work. Many commutes are suburb to suburb. As the second paragraph above notes, even hundreds of thousands of Chicago residents travel from the center to the suburbs for work.

At the least, such numbers should help us reconceptualize cities, suburbs, and regions. The varied pieces within a region are interdependent. Problems need to be solved across communities and taxing bodies. Celebrations take place across the region. The problems of either cities or suburbs are not only theirs to address. The communities are competing against other regions more than each other.

Reasons for replacing “Freeways Without Future”

A new report from the Congress of New Urbanism titled “Freeways Without Futures” looks at the ten urban highways and interchanges that need to go. Why might cities pursue these projects? Here are some common themes in such plans:

1. Reconnect neighborhoods and communities that highways split. When constructed, highways with their width and imposing traffic split social collectives. Or, highways can impede development by providing a barrier. Removing the highway allows for more pedestrian traffic as well as more meaningful connection between residents and businesses on both sides of the highway. New development can span the former highway or help bridge the divide.

2. Create more green space. Highways are the result of auto-oriented urbanism that trampled over and through communities. Removing the highways allows for more parks and trees, among other natural features. Plus, it reduces noise and emissions from the highway (though these might be simply moved to another kind of thoroughfare).

3. Remove eyesores. Highways can create visual blight on the urban landscape. Highways block sight lines and present an imposing concrete structure. Without their presence, particularly elevated highways, people are free to see more of the city.

4. Removing the highway could be part of a larger project of reducing dependence on cars and vehicles and a shift toward mass transit and pedestrians. Removing the above-ground highway is one step but that same highway could simply be routed elsewhere or underground without affecting transportation choices.

Cities and societies always at risk of declining?

I feel that I regularly run into these narratives: cities are in decline and American society is in decline. After seeing a recent example of the cities-will-fall-apart argument, I thought it could be worthwhile to briefly think about where these narratives come from and what they are trying to do.

In terms of cities, Americans on the whole have an anti-urban bias. Data suggests Americans would prefer to live in small towns and even President Obama (resident of numerous big cities) noted the importance of small-town values for the development of the United States. Stephen Conn details anti-urban bias in the twentieth century when the United States experienced a significant population shift to the suburbs, locations where many Americans claim they can find their best life. Population loss is a public rebuke to an entire community. The decline of Detroit is held up as a tragedy and/or lesson.

Added to this is a political edge: cities are seen as strongholds for Democrats while Republicans rule in more rural areas and are against cities. Conservatives link Democratic leadership in these cities to all sorts of problems. Some conservatives see liberal plots to urbanize Americans against their will. Declining cities would then weaken one political party and their values.

In terms of societies, I have heard arguments from evangelical religious groups that society is declining, falling into a moral abyss, and headed toward ruin. Some of this is linked to particular theological views: some Christians believe the decline of society at large will hasten the end times. Others make these claims in order to try to spur believers into action and engagement with society. Still others might argue this is a reason for retreat from society in order to conserve or protect particular religious traditions.

This is also a common tactic of groups looking to address social problems: without tackling this important issue, society is in trouble in the long-term. Additionally, such arguments can also be part of political debates. Which party is in charge when these decline starts or accelerates? Which events are interpreted as harbingers of the end? Who exactly is trying to ruin the American experiment or distort American values? Is every presidential election the potential end for the other half of Americans because yet again it is the most important election we have ever seen?The possibilities are endless.

All of this apocalyptic thinking could have some serious consequences. Do such regular narratives discourage or encourage participation and trust in communities and institutions? Do they lead to long-term optimism or pessimism about individual lives and communities? Does it all distract from good news also taking place as well as small steps that could be taken toward positive change or community building?

It is true that cities and societies can decline and have indeed done so in the past. Just because a particular city or community or country is doing well now does not mean that this is guaranteed for the future. I read a thought-provoking book on this a few years ago from a scholar who studied numerous societies that had collapsed and concluded they reached a level of complexity where an issue in the system meant that all of the social machinery could come crashing down. But, predicting decline as it is happening might be difficult just as predicting trends is difficult.

Decline may happenbut with all the competing claims of decline of this or that (plus differing views on the same phenomena) makes it very difficult to know what to do with any of the claims.