A vote against urban McMansions in 2018

One design and architecture writer takes aim at urban McMansions as a tired trend from 2018:

Allison Arieff (columnist, New York Times):

Urban McMansions. I gotta ask these folks—was it always your dream to live in the Apple store? And if you want to live in 10,000 square feet, maybe you should move to the suburbs?”

Arieff draws attention to three traits of McMansions which she sees as negative:

  1. Their large size. She pegs the size at 10,000 square feet though I would argue that once you are at 10,000 square feet and above, this is more of a mansion than a McMansion.
  2. Their poor or low quality architecture. The comparison here is to an Apple store, presumably a structure of a lot of glass and silver metal. This may be appropriate if you are selling trendy phones and tablets but perhaps not so much in a new residence.
  3. A connection to the suburbs. Whereas McMansions are expected to arise from empty fields, plopping a large McMansion in an urban neighborhood, particularly an older one, could be viewed more negatively. How exactly does a big and poorly-designed single-family home contribute to a vibrant and cosmopolitan city scene?

Together, these homes are an inappropriate size, do not look good, and are meant for a different kind of streetscape and lifestyle. For more, refer to my four traits that can define a McMansion.

Secondary cities attractive but have a ways to go to catch biggest US cities

New data from Redfin suggests Americans are moving to secondary big cities:

Nashville, Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin and Dallas are among the top-10 cities with the largest influx of new residents, according to new data from the Redfin real estate brokerage…

“People in the coastal markets are just fed up with double-digit price increases, and they’re moving to a commuter town or to the middle of the country,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin. “In our most recent ‘hottest markets’ report, Indianapolis tied for third place with Boston among the cities where homes go under contract fastest. People are moving there from Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area because it’s affordable.”…

“It’s the combination of affordable housing and jobs that are causing people to move,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based property database.

“In places like Tampa, Dallas and Las Vegas, there’s a booming economy, with lots of jobs, along with relatively affordable homes. You can cut your housing costs in half if you move to Dallas from Los Angeles and there are jobs there, too.”

The United States has now had a decades-long hierarchy of the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It would be interesting to see if other regions could challenge those top three in terms of population or status/importance. I have written before about the case that could be made for Washington, D.C. but it also has relatively expensive housing and may be considered a secondary city. In population, Chicago has lost ground compared to Toronto and Houston may overtake it soon. But, does Houston or Toronto have the same status? Most of the locations on the list above of secondary cities are Sunbelt cities with relatively recent population growth and/or importance. Can a place like Phoenix or Nashville or Dallas translate these changes into global city status? It would take a lot of work and changed perceptions.

Archetypal American cities and “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

A story about the decline of retail establishments in Manhattan and the consequences for street life ends with this saying from Tennessee Williams:

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

These three cities are indeed unique with distinct cultures and geographies. But, I could imagine there would be some howls in response from a number of other big cities. What about Chicago and its distinct Midwest rise in the middle of a commodity empire? What about Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs and highways between and across mountains and the ocean? What about Miami serving as a Caribbean capital? What about Portland’s unusual climate and approach to social issues? And the list could go on.

Perhaps a more basic question is this: how many archetypal American cities are there? One of the books I have used in urban sociology, The City, Revisited, argues for three main schools of urban theory: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. These happen to be the three largest cities in the United States and also have the advantage of having collections of urban scholars present in each. New York is marked by a strong core (Manhattan) and a unique colonial history (Dutch and then English) that helped kickstart a thriving economy and religious and cultural pluralism. Chicago is the American boom city of the 1800s and was home to the influential Chicago School at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s. Los Angeles is the prototypical twentieth-century American city built around highways and Hollywood with a rise of urban theorists in the late 1900s dubbing themselves the Los Angeles School. If these are the three main cities on which to compare and contrast, a place like Cleveland is more like Chicago (as is much of the Rust Belt), Houston is more like Los Angeles (as is much of the Sunbelt), and San Francisco is more like New York (and some other coastal cities might fit here).

But, these three biggest cities cannot cover all possible kinds of American cities. How many archetypal cities are too many before the categories become less helpful? Should the emphasis be on cultural feel or on how cities develop (New Orleans might simply be a unique outlier in all of this data)? Having these ideal type cities is only helpful so that they help describe and embody broad patterns across groups of cities.

Would more Americans move to cities if they could live in a suburban neighborhood in city limits?

This summer, the New York Times profiled two neighborhoods in a “Suburbs in the City” series. See the profile of Ditmas Park in Brooklyn and Marble Hill in Manhattan. Many American cities have such locations: neighborhoods within the city limits of a major city but with single-family homes, quieter residential streets, and wealthier residents. This is true of both older American cities – Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago – as well as newer cities that are more sprawling – Houston, Phoenix, Las Vegas.

Three quick thoughts regarding such neighborhoods:

1. Americans like suburbs in part because they offer proximity to the big city and its amenities without necessarily having to feel like they live in a big city. I would guess at least a few Americans would consider attractive urban neighborhoods that have the feeling of a suburb. Single-family homes with yards alongside assurances that their kids are safe and will get ahead are huge. The biggest downsides might be issues like a further removed city government and higher taxes.

2. David Rusk discusses how important it is for big cities to capture such locations within city limits. What he calls elastic cities, places that have successfully annexed more land in recent decades (and many cities in the Northeast or Midwest, like Detroit and Chicago, have not), tend to do better on a number of economic and social measures. These neighborhoods allow some city residents who would otherwise move to the suburbs (like many other Americans) to stay in the city.

3. How much should big cities work to enhance these more residential neighborhoods to entice wealthier residents to stay versus deploying resources to neighborhoods who need the resources more? Chicago presents a great example: the city has worked to reassure whiter and wealthier families that residential neighborhoods, particularly on the north and northwest sides are worth staying in (read about one white flight reassurance program). On the other hand, mayor Rahm Emanuel and others have been dogged by claims that the city cares little about poorer neighborhoods.

Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Cities, animals, and intelligence

Research regarding the effect of cities and urban areas on wildlife can be fascinating. See the discussion about how cities could affect the intelligence of different animals:

One of the great mysteries of urban adaptation is what, if anything, living in cities does to animal minds. Research on urban wildlife has already shown that cities can have jaw-dropping effects on animals’ behavior. Gehrt’s coyotes have not only learned where it’s safest to cross roads, but have also learned to avoid traffic based on its speed and volume. Do behavioral shifts like this reflect deeper changes in how urban animals think? In what urban animals are?

These questions vex the small subset of wildlife ecologists that is wading into the murky waters of urban-animal intelligence. In several metropolitan areas, researchers have devised simple puzzles—usually difficult-to-open boxes of food—in order to compare the problem-solving abilities of city-dwelling creatures with those of their wild relatives. The results have been tantalizing: Urban animals as varied as Canadian raccoons and Barbadian bullfinches can outperform their rural counterparts. While it pays to be cunning in almost any setting, some scientists propose that foreign, volatile environments like cities demand an especially broad range of cognitive abilities. Eventually, the thinking goes, cities may bend evolution enough to make whole populations of animals within them smarter—if, of course, the animals can survive city life in the first place.

This is a controversial theory. Even researchers who back it are quick to warn that intelligence is complicated. No one is suggesting that new situations are the only driver of animal smarts: The ways animals interact, how they learn from one another, and the nature of their physical surroundings are all thought to influence how individual animals behave and how their brains take shape over generations, no matter where they live…

But studying animals in new environments may help scientists develop a definition of intelligence that applies across species. Along with others in her field, Benson-Amram has zeroed in on flexibility, long considered an essential criterion for intelligence. “When the environment is changing, you’re able to change your behavioral response, and you don’t perseverate on old responses that used to work but no longer do,” Benson-Amram says. This way of defining intelligence—which researchers also call “behavioral plasticity”—is notably distinct from what could be considered an animal’s specific intelligence. A scrub jay that hides away thousands of seeds and remembers the location of each one certainly has a particular kind of acuity, Benson-Amram notes. But an animal needs a diverse, general set of mental skills—perceptiveness, resourcefulness, foresight, and so on—to tackle the foreign obstacles of cities, she posits.

A simplistic popular approach to these questions might say this: cities and urban development is simply bad for animals and nature. Because such development takes up land and subjects it to particularly harmful uses (pollution, poor water run-off, etc.), humans should limit their development and its effects.

On the other hand, this research and others suggests human-wildlife interaction can be quite complicated. And could it even possible lead to positive change for some animals? I’m also thinking of the book Subirdia which suggests some bird species do well in urban environment even if others do not.

Humans may have the upper hand here and have done some pretty destructive things regarding the environment in recent years. Yet, in the long run, both humans and wildlife adapt to each other.

Whether tech companies and their workers actually do better in and prefer cities

A recent Chicago Tribune article echoed a theme I have now seen numerous times: companies must have downtown campuses to compete for tech workers.

To lure data scientists and other tech workers, companies in industries from fast food to insurance have opened outposts in the heart of the city, where tech employees want to work. Having hip, downtown spaces has proved worth the extra cost to suburban companies, even as rents have increased…

When suburban companies first started catching on to millennials’ desire to live and work in the city, managers had a new culture to learn, Reaumond said. Employees in the downtown innovation hubs didn’t want to be chained to desks 10 hours a day…

Tech-focused downtown spaces feel different than their suburban counterparts, and that’s how it should be, Arity President Gary Hallgren said. Allstate’s Northbrook campus has a barber, a pharmacy and a doctor, but the Merchandise Mart space isn’t trying to be a campus, Hallgren said. Its goals and culture are different, and the space is too. Arity’s office has a pingpong table and the same fizzy water dispenser featured in the HBO show “Silicon Valley.” It hosts meetups that draw tech workers from outside the company.

The underlying premise in these articles is that tech workers prefer to be in urban settings. However, I do not believe I have seen much data that measures this claim. When Americans as a whole are asked where they prefer to live, they tend to say either small towns or suburbs.

If tech workers do tend to prefer urban settings, is this due to the work itself actually going better in cities (higher productivity, more innovation, more efficiency, etc.) or other factors? For example, these stories often do not distinguish between the work activities of these firms and the age (younger) and generation (millennials) of the featured tech workers. Will the tech workers of today be the suburban parents of ten years from now? There is evidence that cities are innovation centers (see the scaling effects of patent production chronicled in Geoffrey West’s Scale) yet tech innovation is possible in the suburban office park (see the Route 128 area outside Boston, Silicon Valley around San Jose, and Bell Labs research centers in suburbia after World War Two).

And while this is often pitted as an either/or issue – tech firms must be in the big cities or must be elsewhere – I suspect there could be some benefits to each as well as some mixing of locations.