The role of disasters – such as the Great Chicago Fire – in pushing people to leave cities for suburbs

A thought experiment considering what would happen if the Chicago Fire of 1871 never happened includes this tidbit about suburban growth:

But then, after that second big fire in 1874, Chicago officials extended the restriction on wooden buildings to cover the whole city.

Elaine Lewinnek, author of the new book The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl, says the aldermen contributed to suburban sprawl by making it cheaper to build outside the city. After they changed the law, a real estate booster reported “a brisk demand for building just outside the city limits.” (Some of those areas outside the city limits in the 1870s later became part of the city through annexations.)…

“Things were already changing, as railroad lines and industry were crowding out housing,” Keating says. “The fire made this happen more quickly but it would have happened anyways. People moved more quickly south to Prairie Avenue or out to new suburban towns like Riverside.”

“The fire pushed 27,000 humble homes out of the central city and the North Side, leading to fewer residences downtown,” Lewinnek says. “Yet suburbanization was already happening before the fire, in elite suburbs like Riverside and more humble suburbs too.”

I have not heard this argument before. At the time of the fire of 1871, suburban populations were very modest. Railroad lines had only been in present in the region for a few decades. For example, the suburb of Naperville, which had just lost out on being the county seat to Wheaton, had just over 1,700 residents in 1870 while Wheaton had 998 residents and Aurora had over 11,000 residents.

As noted by numerous scholars, by the late 1800s fewer areas surrounding Chicago were willing to be annexed into the city (unlike communities like Hyde Park). This is usually attributed to the declining status of city life compared to suburban life alongside the declining price of public infrastructure that made it possible for suburbs to have electricity and their own water supplies. But, the scholars above hint at another factor that would become a long-running feature of suburban life: cheaper housing. If Chicago required less flammable materials for homes, people would move to suburbs that did not have such regulations.

More broadly, it would be worth examining whether major disasters in urban areas push people to move to surrounding areas or even other regions. Do earthquakes in the LA area influence population patterns? How about hurricanes in the southeast? Do people leave population centers after terrorist attacks? It would take some work to separate out the effects of disasters on movement compared to other factors.

Poor residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina moved to better places

Sociologists typically find poor city residents have difficulty leaving poor neighborhoods but a large event like Hurricane Katrina may provide a bigger push:

One of the tragedies of Katrina was that so many of New Orleans’ residents were forced to move. But the severity of that tragedy is a function of where they were forced to move to. Was it somewhere on the Salt Lake City end of the continuum? Or was it a place like Fayetteville? The best answer we have is from the work of the sociologist Corina Graif, who tracked down the new addresses of seven hundred women displaced by Katrina—most of them lower-income and black. By virtually every measure, their new neighborhoods were better than the ones they had left behind in New Orleans. Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to “concentrated disadvantage”—an index that factors in several measures of poverty—fell by half a standard deviation.

The women weren’t going to Fayetteville but, rather, to places like Houston. “For low-income people in the South, Houston is a pretty darn great place,” Hendren said. “It’s not a beacon of phenomenal upward mobility like Salt Lake City. But it’s kind of the Salt Lake City of the South.” The odds of going from the bottom to the top in Houston are 9.3 per cent, which puts it fifteenth out of the top fifty U.S. metro areas.

“I think that what’s happening is that a whole new world is opening up to them,” Graif said. “If these people hadn’t moved out of the metro area, they would have done the regular move—cycling from one disadvantaged area to another. The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape.”

That is, more neighborhoods in better shape than those of New Orleans, which is a crucial fact. For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, “they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,” all of which amounted to “a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.”

Nearly ten years later, tracking the outcomes to this “natural experiment” is providing plenty of material for social scientists. Few major cities experience such catastrophes so there aren’t even many comparisons that can be made. Yet, Katrina helped spark interest in studying resilient cities as leaders and citizens think about ways that cities can bounce back from a broad range of major issues.

Designing homes in “Disaster Chic”

Looking for a home that will help you survive the coming apocalypse? Look no further than printable homes, prefabricated small homes, and shipping containers.

You peer warily out of the single window in your zombie-proof steel box. The street seems deserted—except for a lone figure who is staring at you from a distance. Is it 2079, in the years after the Great Drought Plague!? No, it’s 2015 in Royal Oaks, Michigan, and that zombie is a curious local Fox reporter.

Royal Oaks is just the latest American town to get a house made from shipping containers, which offer something unique to consumers with a taste for apocalyptic adventures. While designers are developing smarter ways to build temporary housing and disaster shelters, developers and real estate agents are using the same technology to sell trendy and high-end homes. What results is a bizarre kind of hybrid style that pairs our worst fears with our biggest hopes for the future—utopia and dystopia overlap. Call it disaster chic…

Of course, it’s not surprising to see interesting ideas cross-pollinate—3D printing, containerization, and pop-up dwellings are all really cool concepts, and there’s no reason they should be shrouded in break-in-case-of-emergency glass. What’s interesting is how similar our ideas about crisis engineering and future chic really are. In the city of the future, everything is instant, whether for a good reason or a bad one. The cities of our dreams have a lot in common with those of our nightmares.

These homes don’t seem all that well equipped to help keep you safe. If anything, their primary feature in relation to disasters is that they can be quickly produced and moved. Those are important features in recovering from disasters but I imagine some might want more solid homes to survive the disaster in the first place.

But, it is interesting that such homes that do well at addressing disaster recovery might become more popular with a broader audience. Do such designs simply offer something different in a housing market where the typical home or housing unit isn’t really that exciting or different? Is this a way to offer ironic commentary about one’s home – homes in the United States are often intended to imply permanence but these structures hint at catastrophic change and adaptability? Or is this primarily driven by younger adults looking for cheaper housing options in cities that seem pretty determined to not provide much in the way of affordable housing?

Radio will be saved – by the lack of NSA monitoring, zombie apocalypse

Slate has an interesting set of articles about podcasts but one article notes the persistence of terrestrial radio. Among the reasons given for its ongoing influence includes operating outside of NSA control and zombie apocalypses:

  • Most of us don’t feel the cost of the data we’re using when we stream online content. But this could be changing. “Half the public still has no idea what data metering is,” says Smulyan, “but we find it changes consumption completely when people see what they’re paying for the data they use.”
  • Due to some complex legislation, it can be less onerous to pay artist royalties when you play music over the airwaves than when you send it over the Internet. For this reason, last year Pandora bought an FM station in South Dakota, in an effort to qualify as a terrestrial broadcaster.
  • When the revolution comes, radio will be vital for the propagation of seditious content. It leaves no digital footprints. And the NSA is unlikely to hack into your transistor boom box and track what you listen to.
  • When the zombie apocalypse arrives, radio will save your hide. Anyone with a generator and an antenna can broadcast radio, and everyone listening hears the same key information in real time.

The first two reasons have to do with finances: radio can be relatively cheap for operators and listeners. These are important considerations today: can media conglomerates and music artists still make money?

The last two have some different rationales. Radio can’t be controlled as easily, even with the complex rules regarding licenses and broadcasting though perhaps listeners have even more freedom as they can tune in to what they want (as long as they aren’t recording what they listened to for ratings purposes). In times of disasters – and there is a lower likelihood of facing zombies compared to being in a natural disaster – radio provides an easy way to broadcast and hear information. Does the Internet work well in those situations? The argument here is that the infrastructure for the Internet is more complicated than that for radio, thus, radio will win in times of trouble.

I suspect the second pair of reasons will prove less influential in the long run than the first pair regarding money. But, if money wins out and broadcasting moves to the Internet, might that completely wipe out the presence of radio for the last two purposes?

 

Aurora fire illustrates need for redundancy in key infrastructure systems

A fire at an Aurora FAA facility caused all sorts of airport problems in Chicago and across the country:

The FAA said it’s working “closely with the airlines that serve the Chicago-area airports to minimize disruptions for travelers” and expects to “continue to increase the traffic flow at those two airports over the weekend.” FAA officials did not respond Saturday to requests for more information.At least 778 flights had been canceled Saturday out of both airports by just before 3 p.m., according to Flightstats, a website that monitors air traffic.

O’Hare was able to operate at around 60 percent of its usual Saturday capacity, said Doug Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Because of the fire at the Aurora facility, O’Hare’s control tower can’t receive or send to other control centers the airlines’ automated flight plans, so airlines are having to fax them to O’Hare. That’s requiring two controllers to staff every position at the main O’Hare tower, and had to close the auxiliary north tower at the airport, Church said.

While this is certainly an unusual accident, it illustrates the fragility of some of our key infrastructure: the behind-the-scenes equipment and people that keep airplanes flying and airports operating. As many have noted, flying has become quite hum-drum in the United States in recent decades and this is partly due to the general efficiency of this system. No one likes delays or lost luggage or maintenance problems but it is still pretty remarkable the number of flights in the air on a daily basis and the relative ease of traveling across long distances.

What we need are some redundancies in these key systems in case something does go wrong. As the article notes, the whole system isn’t shut down because flight plans can be sent by fax. But, there isn’t a quicker way – like digital photos or digital scans – to do this? Can’t this be done with one person? But, building redundant systems might often cost significant money upfront, a luxury many systems don’t have. At the least, this incident in Aurora should lead to some rethinking of what can be done better in the future if a key facility breaks down.

Doomsday prepping in New York City

How do you prepare for the end of the world in the #1 global city, New York City?

These urban doomsday preppers look very different from the stereotype of the rural, gun-toting conservative depicted on shows such as “Doomsday Castle,” Anna Maria Bounds, a sociologist at Queens College, City University of New York, said on Monday (Aug. 18) here at the 109th annual American Sociological Association meeting…

Urban preppers usually don’t own guns, their political views are all over the map, and they are often people of color, Bounds said. Many have seen firsthand, in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, how long it can take for local and federal government agencies to restore order, she said…

One simple step is to make sure the car (if you have one) is always filled with gas and that medical prescriptions are always filled. Urbanites should also look around their apartments and figure out what would work in different emergencies, Bounds said. For instance, is the stove gas or electric? What services would a power outage eliminate?

Another essential for a mass New York exodus is to have a “bug-out” bag ready. This bag is typically a backpack filled with several days’ worth of survival gear that weighs between 20 and 25 pounds (9 to 11 kg). Typical items in a bug-out bag include water filtration systems, food and water, face masks and goggles to protect against airborne hazards, compasses and duct tape. Preppers go on long treks during all seasons to make sure they can carry them for extended periods, Bounds said.

Urbanites should also plan their escape route, which includes knowing how to evacuate a tall apartment building when the power goes out, and how to get out on foot, Bounds said.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to happen. But, it is a fascinating question: how would you quickly, orderly, and effectively evacuate a major city like New York City? Even planning things like turning both sides of federal Interstates outbound assumes that people own cars and/or there are enough vehicles to evacuate all the people that need to leave.

The irony here is that although New York City (and other major cities) are seen as the places to be because of jobs, culture, exciting neighborhoods, and other features, the preppers assume the last place you would want to be when complex societies break down is in those same cities.

Determining whether concrete buildings in LA are endangered by earthquakes

The Los Angeles Times looks at a number of concrete buildings in LA that could be at serious risk in an earthquake:

Despite their sturdy appearance, many older concrete buildings are vulnerable to the sideways movement of a major earthquake because they don’t have enough steel reinforcing bars to hold columns in place.

Los Angeles officials have known about the dangers for more than 40 years but have failed to force owners to make their properties safer. The city has even rejected calls to make a list of concrete buildings.

In the absence of city action, university scientists compiled the first comprehensive inventory of potentially dangerous concrete buildings in Los Angeles.

The scientists, however, have declined to make the information public. They said they are willing to share it with L.A. officials, but only if the city requests a copy. The city has not done so, the scientists said.

Pretty interesting look at how concrete buildings can be built to withstand earthquakes. The key issue here seems to be retrofitting: should it be required and if so, how much would property owners complain about the cost? As the article notes:

Earthquake safety has rarely been an issue that draws deep public passions and outrage. Most seismic regulations are approved in the wake of destructive earthquakes, but there hasn’t been one in California in nearly 20 years.

In other words, occasional disasters allows room for complacency. When the events are rare, people will question whether the money should be better spent elsewhere. This is part of the debate over other disasters as well like: how should buildings in Tornado Alley be constructed if tornadoes might occur? Should New York be protected from hurricanes and rising water levels by constructing gates and barriers? How much should be spent on levees in New Orleans to avoid situations like that after Hurricane Katrina?