Imagine the American suburbs shrunk by a factor of five

A comparison of suburbs in Germany and the United States hints at places built on two different scales:

The fact is, my wife’s parents didn’t drive her anywhere because they didn’t need to. Her German suburb looks like an American suburb – shrunk by a factor of about five. The houses are smaller, the lots are smaller, the gardens are smaller, and around most corners are buildings with multiple housing units. It’s denser. That means friends and volleyball practices and first jobs at pizza shops are all closer, and parents can tell their kids to walk or take a bicycle.

For the younger generations in America, that is an increasingly pleasing prospect. Car buying is dropping and a growing share of millennials and Gen Zers is putting off getting a driver’s license or eschewing it entirely. They want to take the bicycle. Add in concerns about climate change among many young Americans (and wanting to limit car emissions), and you get a scenario where density becomes desirable.

Yet most American neighborhoods have been designed with the exact opposite in mind. The expression “your home is your castle” gives some indication of the prevailing mindset since the 1920s, when modern single-family zoning first took hold. Who wants the smallest castle on the block?

So what is happening now, from the D.C. suburbs to California, is a recalibration of what American homeownership should look like. There are other important factors, too. The single-family mentality and its lower density mean fewer places to live – and therefore more upward pressure on home prices. That has meant many people of color have been locked out of the most common way for individuals and families to build wealth. Many young Americans say equity demands greater density.

The argument for denser suburbs is a common one in recent years. Packing in more buildings and housing units in the same amount of land has the potential to allow suburbanites to keep single-family homes (just with smaller yards and multi-family housing would not look as out of place). New suburban development would shift from new homes on the the edges of metropolitan regions and focus instead on filling in existing communities.

I could see this happening in at least three kinds of suburbs:

1. Mature suburbs with little greenfield land for development but there is still demand/interest in more housing. The only way is go denser or up and denser at least preserves the vertical scale.

2. Communities built around significant mass transit options. Transit-oriented development promotes density and less car use.

3. Suburbs with larger populations. More density is likely to be resisted in smaller communities because they can still claim to be a small town. In contrast, large suburbs are already past that point so more density already fits the size of the community.

Then, we might see in a decade or two an altered suburban landscape where certain communities are quite dense and nearby suburbs are in the older mode of single-family homes and bigger yards. Imagine “surban” pockets with sprawling neighborhoods next door. This will provide options for homebuyers but also means mass transportation options in the suburbs will remain uneven.

First segment of “bike autobahn” opens in Germany

Following up on an earlier post, the first part of the “bike autobahn” recently opened in northwest Germany:

Last month, Germany opened its first stretch of “bike autobahn,” a cycle route that will eventually cover 100 kilometers (62 miles) between the northwestern cities of Duisburg and Hamm. The autobahn moniker (the German term is actually radschnellweg) may sound over the top given that so far just five kilometers of the route have been launched. But the plan’s ultimate scale and ambition is not to be denied…

The idea nonetheless has real potential for medium-length journeys, pushing the limits of frequent daily bike use out from the (now well-provided-for) inner city into the suburbs and wider regions. Munich isalready planning a network like this one, which will stretch from the historic center out along 14 protected two-lane paths through the suburbs into the surrounding lake land. Germany’s fourth city, Cologne, has a smaller plan for a similar bike highway out into its western exurbs.

When it comes to extending this idea from metro areas to tracks between cities, the new Hamm-Duisburg route is ideal. It will pass through the most densely populated region of Germany, the Ruhr region, where a network of industrial cities lies scattered at only short distances from each other, interspersed with forest and farmland. When complete, the route will bring a string of cities into 30 minutes cycle distance of each other—almost 2 million people will live within a two-kilometer radius of the completed highway…

The main sticking point is cost. The full cost of the new Ruhr highway will be€180 million, funding that is not yet in place for the whole route but which should ultimately come from a blend of municipal and provincial budgets. Elsewhere, not everyone is convinced the benefits of projects like this outweigh the expense. A Berlin bike autobahn plan, which would link the city center with the southwest area, is facing resistance from opponents who say that, as as a link primarily used in good weather, it would do little to relieve pressure on existing rail links.

The portion that just opened – and the planned sections for Munich – seem to be primarily about commuters. If you have several million people within easy distance of these new routes, the bike autobahn could get significant use. It would be interesting to also know the ongoing maintenance cost of such paths; compared to laying down roads which need regular repair (and complete overhauls with several decades), these paths might be relatively cheap in the long run.

I do wonder how the commuters might mix with more recreational users. Perhaps the times of use might be slightly different but paths like these could attract both people who want to get to work and others out for exercise – all at varying speeds. Perhaps Europeans who are already more interested in bicycling around cities could handle this better than Americans who often use bike paths for recreational purposes.

Translating the dystopian world of The Hunger Games…into 1930s scenery?

In my review of The Hunger Games movie, I noted that I was not terribly impressed by the futuristic designs in the movie. At The Atlantic, three design critics make similar arguments and note that much of the scenery and design is not from the future but rather from the 1930s. Here are a few of their thoughts:

The props, sets, and costumes are a giant mash-up of visual cues taken from eras when the socioeconomic disparity between classes was so extreme as to be dangerous. The look is sort of cherry picked from influences ranging from the French Revolution to the Third Reich to Alexander McQueen. A more unified or coherent vision, one that took the influences and used them to create something unique, might have served the story better…

The opening scenes in District 12 are atmospheric and period precise. The bleached-out blue palette, the wooden shacks, the muddy roads—you know you are in the 1930s of the Farm Services Administration photographers. There were a couple of moments, like the line of cabins going down into the hollow, or the two scrawny kids looking out of a hole in the wall, that I could almost swear were direct imitations of a photograph. I found out after I saw the movie that those scenes were filmed in Henry River, North Carolina, an abandoned mill town from the 1920s. In District 12, it is coal. In North Carolina, it was yarn…

The overall look of the Capitol was 1930s neoclassicism, an architectural style used by the Nazis and based on Roman precedents. Fascist architecture seems too easy and obvious an equivalence for Panem’s totalitarian regime. I thought Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was trying to make a trenchant point about what we all like to watch now. Making the Capitol a contemporary skyscraper city, like a forest of Far East towers, would have made a much more pointed contrast with the Appalachian opening. What about the top of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, with its mile-high infinity pool, as the setting for Katniss and Peeta’s pre-Games talk? How could you get more decadent than that?…

Maybe oppressive architecture in movies has to be Fascist, in the same way that aliens need to be either robotic, humanoid, or insect-like—otherwise we don’t immediately recognize and fear what we’re seeing. The tributes’ apartment was like an outdated hotel room that was trying too hard to be hip but not quite succeeding; the green chairs were ridiculous in the same way as Effie’s shoes, hats, and makeup…

On the whole, these critics argue that the movie seems to lean on the past a lot rather than casting a new vision for the future. I understand the difficulties of doing this; futuristic settings can be too jarring or cheesy (see the city scenes in Star Wars Episodes I-III). Maybe moviegoers are more invested in the movie if there are scenes they can recognize. For example, the Nazi narrative is clear to many so invoking these ideas in the Capitol is an easy way to make a link between Nazism and the totalitarianism that made the Hunger Games possible in the first place. The movie taps into familiar cultural narratives such as the Depression or Nazism, pointing to the future while also drawing on the past.

Perhaps this comes down to an argument about whether movie makers should always try to hit a home run with design and setting or play it safe. I think The Hunger Games played it safe on this end. Rather than risk ridicule or have to develop a whole new world, they borrowed heavily from known images. Perhaps this could even drive home the possibly commentary even further that we aren’t as far away from this sort of world as we might think. In other words, the future (or the present) might look a lot similar to the pas.t But I think this was a missed opportunity: considering the budget and popularity of the books, the movie could have presented a grand vision of the future that truly captured the attention of viewers and also pushed design and popular imagery of the future further.

Quick Review: Boomerang

Michael Lewis’s latest book, Boomerang, gives the current economic crisis some international context. In an entertaining and somewhat breezy manner, Lewis investigates why countries as disparate as Iceland, Greece, Germany, and the United States all fell into the economic mess. Here are a few thoughts about his take:

1. My overwhelming thought about Lewis’s explanations is that he wants to delve into different cultural approaches to the world of finance. Lewis’s argument goes like this: even though these countries have very different histories and cultural mindsets, somehow they all got involved with bad debt in the 2000s. This same topic could spark a fascinating economic sociology or cultural sociology manuscript.

2. Unfortunately, Lewis either doesn’t have much time to spend with each country (he admits the book began as he was working on understanding the US system, which became The Big Short or he doesn’t want to delve deeply into his thin arguments. For example, in Germany he tries to tie their fondness for following rules (which means Germans were the last people to be being disastrous American CDOs) to their fondness for scatalogical humor (which Lewis bases on one anthropological study). While there is a lot of potential here for showing how different cultures can be tied together by a global finance market, Lewis needs a lot more evidence to construct a convincing argument.

3. I found the last chapter to be both exhilarating and depressing. Lewis comes back to the United States in the final chapter and describes how this could all play out. Here is what Lewis suggests: while the centralized governments of Europe struggle, the problem in the US is pushed down the road because the federal government can push off more and more obligations on state and local governments. If this plays out as Lewis suggests (though there is debate over whether it will be as bad as Meredith Whitney suggested), local governments will continue to feel the pain of the economic crisis for years to come and the results may not be pretty.

Summary: I think Lewis is on to something here but I would like to see the topic covered with more depth and include more research.

Sarkozy joins growing chorus of Western European leaders who have said multiculturalism has failed

In a recent interview, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said multiculturalism has failed in his country:

“My answer is clearly yes, it is a failure,” he said in a television interview when asked about the policy which advocates that host societies welcome and foster distinct cultural and religious immigrant groups.

“Of course we must all respect differences, but we do not want… a society where communities coexist side by side.

“If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France,” the right-wing president said.

“The French national community cannot accept a change in its lifestyle, equality between men and women… freedom for little girls to go to school,” he said.

“We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him,” Sarkozy said in the TFI channel show.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia’s ex-prime minister John Howard and Spanish ex-premier Jose Maria Aznar have also recently said multicultural policies have not successfully integrated immigrants.

Based on what Sarkozy said in this interview, it sounds like he either has a different definition of multiculturalism or a different end goal. A contrast to multiculturalism would be assimilation where newcomers to a country (or any group) should quickly or eventually adopt the customs and values of the country they have entered. Sarkozy is suggesting that because some immigrants have not done this, multiculturalism has failed. But Sarkozy seems to be explaining how assimilation has failed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines multiculturalism thusly: “the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported.” In this sense, a long-running policy of multiculturalism ends up changing the larger culture to some degree. It sounds like Sarkozy (and some of these other leaders) are not as interested in this. Can French or English or German culture change and incorporate elements of cultures from immigrants living within their borders?

These comments from various leaders seem to have been motivated in part by growing Muslim populations in these nations.

It is also interesting to note that there is not a whole lot of public discussion about this in the United States. Some of this may be more below the surface, particularly when issues like immigration arise (though this has been overwhelmed by economic concerns). Can you imagine an American political leader of any party making a statement like these Western European leaders have?

Report on how US helped Nazis after World War II

A recently released report suggests the United States helped a number of Nazis after the end of World War II:

The 600-page report, which the Justice Department has tried to keep secret for four years, provides new evidence about more than two dozen of the most notorious Nazi cases of the last three decades.

It describes the government’s posthumous pursuit of Dr. Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death at Auschwitz, part of whose scalp was kept in a Justice Department official’s drawer; the vigilante killing of a former Waffen SS soldier in New Jersey; and the government’s mistaken identification of the Treblinka concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible…

Perhaps the report’s most damning disclosures come in assessing the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement with Nazi émigrés. Scholars and previous government reports had acknowledged the C.I.A.’s use of Nazis for postwar intelligence purposes. But this report goes further in documenting the level of American complicity and deception in such operations.

The Justice Department report, describing what it calls “the government’s collaboration with persecutors,” says that O.S.I investigators learned that some of the Nazis “were indeed knowingly granted entry” to the United States, even though government officials were aware of their pasts. “America, which prided itself on being a safe haven for the persecuted, became — in some small measure — a safe haven for persecutors as well,” it said.

Even today, everyone can agree on one group of people who were evil: the Nazis. Yet it appears the relationship between the United States, the supposed moral victors in Europe in 1945, had a much more complicated relationship with Nazis than is typically thought.

This reminds me of a chapter by sociologist Jeffrey Alexander. In this chapter, Alexander detailed how the United States was able to claim the moral high ground after World War II – after all, the US had rid the world of both the evil Nazis and Japanese. But by the mid 1960s, the United States could no longer claim this high ground with questions about whether the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan had been necessary and Milgram’s experiment suggested lots of ordinary people were capable of evil.

How much more interesting information like this is buried somewhere?

World War I reparation payments from Germany to end soon

From the dustbins of history, CNN reports that Germany will on Sunday (October 3) make its last reparations payment from World War I. Here is a brief history of the payments:

The initial tally in 1919, according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, was 96,000 tons of gold but was slashed by 40 to 60 percent (sources vary) a few years later. The debt was crippling, just as French Premier Georges Clemenceau intended.

Germany went bankrupt in the 1920s, Der Spiegel explained, and issued bonds between 1924 and 1930 to pay off the towering debt laid on it by the Allied powers in 1919’s Treaty of Versailles…

Germany discontinued reparations in 1931 because of the global financial crisis, and Hitler declined to resume them when he took the nation’s helm in 1933, Der Spiegel reported.

After reaching an accord in London in 1953, West Germany paid off the principal on its bonds but was allowed to wait until Germany unified to pay about 125 million euros ($171 million) in interest it accrued on its foreign debt between 1945 and 1952, the magazine said.

In 1990, Germany began paying off that interest in annual installments, the last of which will be distributed Sunday.

I had no idea that these payments were still being made. I don’t know the answer to this: are reparation payments between nations still a common method for helping to rectifying the wrongs of war?

It is also a reminder of the major consequences of World War I, a war that gets a lot less attention in the United States due to a smaller US role and a majority of the fighting taking place away from American shores.