Decades-long trend: complex suburbia

A 2018 review of what we learned about American suburbs ends with this:

It all added up to a portrait of suburbia as a landscape of dynamic cultural and structural change, not sleepy stasis.

I would suggest this is a change that has been happening for decades. Here are the first four features of a more complex suburbia that come to mind. They each go back quite a while:

  1. Different kinds of suburban communities. The prototypical suburban community looks like Riverside, Illinois or Levittown, New York, places primarily for commuters, consisting of single-family homes., and attracting middle to upper-class residents. These communities had a limited numbers of jobs and local businesses and men were expected to commute to the big city (via train or automobile). The problem with this view, common to find since any book on the history of the suburbs mentions these two bedroom suburbs, is that different kinds of suburbs have been around for at least a century. Different kinds of suburbs included: working-class suburbs, suburbs of non-white residents, industrial suburbs, and suburbs with various levels of density of housing and commercial or industrial property (including edge cities).
  2. The move of industry and jobs to the suburbs. Even as a good number of early suburbs were bedroom suburbs, the suburbs also proved attractive to industry because of cheap land, access to transportation, and the ability to pollute away from millions of residents in the big city. East St. Louis, Illinois or Gary, Indiana grew as industrial suburbs. After World War Two, the number of jobs grew in suburbs as businesses moved to the suburbs to be closer to workers (or perhaps closer to their CEOs) and suburban residents desired more goods and shopping options (shopping malls, big box stores, restaurants, etc.). By more recent years, the most common commute in the United States was suburb to suburb, not the supposedly typical suburb to big city commute.
  3. Changing suburban populations. While most early suburbs were white (notwithstanding the occasional community of non-white suburbanites who could not live in white suburbs), suburbs in recent decades have become home to an increasing number of non-white residents. Additionally, poorer residents have made their way to the suburbs in recent decades. These non-white and poorer populations may have hit a certain critical mass in recent years but the trends go back at least a few decades.
  4. Growing cultural and entertainment options in the suburbs. This trend is more recent than the first three but is still relatively common across metropolitan areas: suburbanites do not need to go into the big city for entertainment and cultural options. The suburbs feature a number of restaurants, museums, parks, music venues, festivals, and other options that make it easier for suburbanites to rarely need to go into the big city for a night out. Certain cultural options may still be richer in the big cities but more regular cultural options are now often found just a few suburbs over.

All of these suburban features may be coming together in new ways or presenting challenges to more suburbs that never thought they would change dramatically from their character at founding. Additionally, thinking about these intertwined suburban traits could help us move past seeing cities and suburbs in a strict dichotomy and instead view metropolitan regions as more cohesive wholes with similar interests and problems to address.

Does the population size of the US get in the way?

One idea I’ve had in my mind in recent years is how the population size of the United States interacts with the country’s stated ideals and policies. Is it possible to be the United States with over 320 million residents? When I hear discussions of policy, I am regularly struck by the size of the issue at hand. Healthcare is a good example. Any changes at the Federal level – whether adding to existing policies or retracting what currently exists – would have significant impact on millions of people as well as have a sizable effect on the budget. Additionally, we have multiple layers of government (federal – three branches, state, county, township – not everywhere, municipality, some regulatory and taxing bodies that span these layers) that can sometimes add to the complexity. Furthermore, we are a relatively open society that incorporates many people and comes out with something “American.” We may not be one of the happiest countries in the world but a number of the countries at the top of the list are simply not as socially complex. Indeed, of the 13 countries ahead of the United States, only one is 1/10 the population size (Canada) and the rest don’t come close to that.

On the other hand, we have had an explosion of the Internet and social media that allows us to drill down to individual experience after individual experience. One way to think about social media is that it allows the experiences or opinions of individual actors to reach a wide audience. However, these individual experiences can blur the wider patterns at play. How can we compare anecdotes?

Perhaps the practical question in this: how do we operate between these two scales of a large-scale complex society versus the individual actor? It is not easy to do as either scale has drawbacks and benefits. At the least, it highlights that the “American Experiment” continues, perhaps now less based on our democratic and republican aspirations but more in terms of size and complexity.

The Swiss Cheese Model for dealing with industrial accidents

I was recently reading The Grid by Gretchen Bakke where a discussion of massive power plant brownouts led to discussing two approaches to industrial accidents:

One might be given to think that this blackout might have been prevented if somebody had just noticed as things slowly went awry – if in 2002 all of FirstEnergy’s “known common problems” had been dealt with rather than merely 17 percent of them, if the trees had been clipped, if a bright young eye had seen the static in the screen. But what most students of industrial accidents recognize is that perfect knowledge of complex systems is not actually the best way to make these systems safe and reliable. In part because perfect real-time knowledge is extremely difficult to come by, not only for the grid but for other dangerous yet necessary elements of modern life – like airplanes and nuclear power plants. One can just never be sure that every single bit of necessary information is being accurately tracked (and God knows what havoc those missing bits are wreaking while they presumed to-be-known bits chug along their orderly way). Even if we could eliminate all the “unknown unknowns” (to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld) from systems engineering – and we can’t – there would still be a serious problem to contend with, and that is how even closely monitored elements interact with each other in real time. And of course humans, who are always also component parts of these systems, rarely function as predictable as even the shoddiest of mechanical elements.

Rather than attempting the impossible feat of perfect control grounded in perfect information, complex industrial undertaking have for decades been veering toward another model for avoiding serious disaster. This would also seem to be the right approach for the grid, as its premise is that imperfect knowledge should not impede safe, steady functioning. The so-called Swiss Cheese Model of Industrial Accidents assumes glitches all over the place, tiny little failures or unpredicted oddities as a normal side effect of complexity. Rather than trying to “know and control” systems designers attempt to build, manage, and regulate complexity in such a way that small things are significantly impeded on their path to becoming catastrophically massive things. Three trees and a bug shouldn’t black out half the country. (p.135-136)

Social systems today are increasingly complex – see a recent post about the increasing complexity of cities – and we have more and more data regarding the components and the whole of systems. However, as this example illustrates, humans don’t always know what to do with all this data or see the necessary patterns.

The Swiss Cheese Model seems to privilege redundancy and resiliency over stopping all problems. At the same time, I assume there are limits to how many holes in the cheese are allowed, particularly when millions of residents might be affected. Who sets that limit and how is that decision made? We’ll accept a certain number of electrical failures each year but no more?

Getting a handle on the increasing complexity of large cities

Richard Florida interviews the author of a new book on cities and complexity. Here is one of the more interesting questions:

What do you think is the best way to think about cities: as machines, ecosystems, living organisms, or something else?

The fascinating thing about cities is that different aspects of them allow us to think about them in many different ways. At the level of urban infrastructure, cities certainly have features of machines, with vast constructed networks involved in transporting people, water, electricity, and waste.

At the level of the economy, cities resemble complex ecosystems, with companies and individuals filling specific niches and all living and working in a symbiotic dance. And at the level of growth and change, cities also feel like living, breathing, constantly growing and changing organisms.

But ultimately, the fact that a city has features of both a machine, a societal ecosystem, as well as a living thing means that a city is truly its own category: a novel type of socio-technological system that humans have made, and is perhaps one of our more incredible inventions.

I like this response: we have a tendency to reduce complex social phenomena to understandable objects (like machines – think of how often the brain is compared to a computer) but this often isn’t possible. Understanding all of the social relationships involved – and this could include relationships between people as well as between people and objects or nature – should lead us to some humility of how much we can know and predict as well as a fascination regarding how it all works. (Or, perhaps this fascination just applies to people like sociologists)

If indeed cities are complex systems, this could lead to questions of whether that complexity has drawbacks in the long run that cannot be overcome. (Parenthetically, such questions could also apply to nation states.) At some point, complexity may produce diminishing returns as argued by anthropologist Joseph Tainter. This reminds me that Jane Jacobs suggested organizing cities in districts that weren’t too big or small so that they could attend to smaller matters while also allowing community involvement. Americans tend to like smaller local government but the combined resources and interactions between larger groups of people can lead to more unusual benefits.

The biggest urban problem is that all the major American cities are run by Democrats?

American cities face a host of problems but one common claim from conservatives is that the biggest issue is that all of them are run by Democrats:

The rapid growth of urban areas, increased population density, and a massive influx of immigrants—accompanying the explosion of manufacturing and commerce during the Gilded Age—hastened the rise of municipal political machines (such as Tammany Hall in New York City), official corruption, labor unrest, and the demographic diversity that continues to this day. Even though Americans’ standard of living generally improved during industrialization (people moved to the cities for a reason), the Progressive movement was in significant part a response to America’s nascent urban problems.

Progressivism is a legacy that endures, as we know, and for good or ill, urbanization has profoundly affected the American experience. Members of ethnic minorities disproportionately reside in U.S. cities, and their local governments are disproportionately (in fact more or less exclusively) in the hands of the Democratic Party. Cities expend substantial taxpayer resources to try to address poverty, crime, air pollution, congestion, substandard housing, homelessness, and the education of non-English speaking students, all of which are not as prevalent in suburban and rural areas.

Cities tend to have large numbers of unionized public employees, high (and rising) taxes and debt (including unfunded pension liabilities), and intrusive regulations. For a variety of reasons, urban residents favor liberal policies—and elect liberals to office—to a greater degree than suburban and rural voters. Some major American cities, such as Detroit, have become dysfunctional fiefdoms, forced into bankruptcy…

Cities present different challenges than they did a century ago, but the current problems are no less dire. Costly and ineffective public education systems, massively under-funded public employee pension plans, law-enforcement failures, high taxes, and uncontrolled spending imperil the security and solvency of America’s cities. Unless these problems are promptly addressed by responsible state reforms, more urban residents will face the tragic plight of Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Bernardino.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It would be interesting to see a recent example where more conservative policies helped a large city. Perhaps it is simply hard to find a case from today with most big cities having Democrat mayors. Is the historical record kinder? I recently read about “Big Bill” Thompson who was the last Republican mayor of Chicago, leaving office in 1931. He had all sorts of problems and Wikipedia sums up: “He ranks among the most unethical mayors in American history.” Maybe we could look to Rudy Giuliani in New York City who is often credited for helping reduce crime in the city (due to applying broken windows theory) and for strong leadership after the September 11th attacks. But, some of his legacy has been questioned as crime rates dropped in numerous other major cities and such policies may have come at a cost. All together, it is easy for one party to blame the other but why not have a discussion of exactly how Republicans have actually helped cities in recent years?
  2. Cities are complex places which is why they started drawing so much attention from social scientists and others in the 1800s. Having a change in political party of leadership won’t automatically solve issues: how do we tackle neighborhoods that have now been poor for several generations? How about income inequality? Development and economic opportunities throughout big cities and not just in wealthy areas? The presence and activity of gangs? Providing affordable housing? Avoiding police brutality? Maintaining and upgrading critical infrastructure? Again, it is easy to blame one party but these are not easy issues to address – there is a level of complexity that would prove difficult for a mayor of any party.

We are still trying to cope with 19th century social changes

I recently heard a talk from historian Heath Carter regarding his new book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago where he drew connections between the Gilded Age and our own current times of inequality. In thinking further about the topic, I was struck by the number of issues that were pertinent then and are still present today. While it is difficult to know exactly when social processes begin and end, here is an incomplete list of concerns from the 1800s that we are still trying to figure out:

-How do we cope with all the people moving from small towns/agricultural areas to big cities?

-How can we have fulfilling lives in an industrialized, mechanized, global, capitalistic economic system? How do we deal with influential corporations as well as the ultra-rich?

-How can welfare states operate effectively with numerous interest groups and big money involved?

-Can science and religion coexist?

-On the whole, does mass culture (through mass media whether newspapers, telegraph, radio, TV, or Internet) help or hinder society?

-Can technological progress solve many of our problems?

-How can society – particularly, nation states – be cohesive and unified given increased levels of heterogeneity and specialization?

-What is the role of the self compared to the shaping and undeniable influence of growing (and often necessary) social institutions?

-What kind of relationship should we have with nature given industrialization and modifications to the environment?

-Under what pretenses and at what costs should major wars and social conflicts be waged?

Put another way, it is little surprise to me that the discipline of sociology emerged when it did: as these large-scale social changes were getting underway, numerous people were interested in explaining the effects. But, these are long-term social processes that may take decades or centuries to play out across a variety of contexts and as they interact with each other.

Science joke that leads to sociology

A review of a sci-fi novel uses a joke to help make the argument that sociological issues underlying scientific and technological issues:

There’s an old joke in science: Applied physics is called chemistry, applied chemistry is called biology, and applied biology is called sociology.

The purpose of the joke?

Each is more complex, vague, and unpredictable than the last. The problems Robinson lays out proceed neatly along that ladder of intricacy.

Scientific knowledge and technological breakthroughs may not matter much if social groups don’t know what to do with them or use them well to help benefit society.