Testing play streets in Los Angeles

The city of Los Angeles, known for its highways and roads, is trying to turn some of its streets into areas for fun and community activity:

There are roughly 7,500 miles of streets in Los Angeles, and Fickett Street is only one of them. But in this predominantly Latino neighborhood where parks are scarce, residents and activists have begun a design intervention to reclaim streets for civic life, kibitzing and play. From London to Los Angeles, the play street concept, known as “playing out” in England, has become an international movement of sorts, especially in low-income communities that lack green space and other amenities.

The efforts in Boyle Heights, a 6 ½-mile area bisected by six freeways, is a collaboration between Union de Vecinos, a group of neighborhood leaders, and the Kounkuey Design Initiative, or KDI, a nonprofit public interest design firm that helps underserved communities realize ideas for productive public spaces.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation has invested $300,000 on 15 KDI-designed pilot play streets this year in Boyle Heights and Koreatown, another heavily trafficked neighborhood. Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of the LADOT, first became aware of the concept while visiting Copenhagen…

On a recent Sunday, Kounkuey unveiled its “playground in a box.” Shade structures stretched across Fickett Street, affixed to loquat trees and no-parking signs, and the plastic “wobbles” created by KDI doubled as Tilt-a-Whirls, BarcaLoungers, and formidable hurdles for teenage skateboarders. Nine-year-old Amanda Alvarado built a McMansion. “Ava, lookit!” she exclaimed to her 4-year-old sidekick in pink pom-pom slippers.

This is a clever idea for two reasons. First, it transforms what is typically a thoroughfare for cars into a space for community life. Many American neighborhoods and communities are full of roads and planning that emphasizes the efficiency of getting vehicles from Point A to Point B. Even if the effort is temporary, the transformation can be a powerful symbol. Second, it does not require long-term investments into new spaces or architecture. The road already exists. Bringing in the equipment takes some work but it is portable and can also be used elsewhere.

At the same time, this seems like an incomplete concept. It feels like a small band-aid for larger issues. As the article goes on to talk about, in a neighborhood bisected by highways, lacking green space, and pushing back against gentrification, couldn’t more be done? How about permanent parks?

“It’s part of the American identity to have a grill”

This is the final line in a story on grilling. Here are some updates on the American grilling industry:

Grill sales in America are growing only by low single-digit percentages each year, and the market is nearly 20% smaller than it was a decade ago, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

U.S. grill manufacturers — led by Weber-Stephen Products, maker of the iconic Weber grills — also face stiff competition from imports, which now account for 56% of U.S. sales, up from 46% a decade ago, the IBISWorld data show.

Grill sales are closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing industry. So, not surprisingly, the grill business was hammered between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession took hold…

The Fourth of July is the most popular day of the year for outdoor grilling, with 76% of grill owners planning to fire up their barbecues on the holiday, the HPBA says. Those summer bookends, Memorial Day and Labor Day, tied for second place at 62%…

And in the heated debate between gas and charcoal, gas has the edge. Gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1%. The remaining 2.2% of grills sold were electric.

Based on this article, then grilling is tied to the single-family home, the lawn and backyard, eating meat, and American holidays. Perhaps it is a symbol of having the leisure time to cook slowly outside. We can add the grill – perhaps the distinctive Weber grill in particular – to other consumer goods that supposedly symbolize the American Dream (McMansions, SUVs, large sodas, fast food, big TVs, etc.).

Yet, other people in the world use grills or outdoor cooking spaces. Are Americans really that unique in this regard? Bon Appetit takes a look at grilling around the world after this introduction:

For Americans, firing up the Weber and grilling up some meat has a distinctly patriotic vibe–we barbecue on the 4th of July, after all, and no image of the American Dream would be complete without a cookout-friendly lawn behind that white picket fence–but we’re not the only ones who pride ourselves on our skill with charcoal and tongs. From satay in Singapore to asado in Argentina, there’s a whole world of grilling out there. You can always find regional variations from city to city, town to town, and family to family, but here are some of the world’s great grilling traditions.

So, perhaps Americans just do the grilling in distinct ways: often in private spaces (backyards of owned homes) at particular times (summer holidays).

TV watching crushes all other leisure activities

Five Thirty Eight looks at the 2014 American Time Use Survey and finds TV still rules supreme:

Americans still spend more time watching TV than all other leisure activities combined:

Americans average 5.3 hours of leisure time per day (4.8 hours on weekdays and 6.5 hours on weekends and holidays) and over half that is spent in front of the television. Socializing and communicating is the next most popular activity and is the only one to nearly double on weekends (35 minutes on weekdays, 61 minutes on weekends).

libresco-datalab-timeuse

And an interesting parenting finding:

From 2010 to 2014, parents had deliberate conversations with their children for, on average, only 3 minutes a day, and they read to their kids for 2.4 minutes per day (about one picture book’s worth). Conversation with children helps spur language development, and several states run programs for low-income families, who may have less time at home, to help them engage their children and close the word gap.

That television still must provide something that other leisure activities just can’t compete with. Perhaps it is the compelling stories – something must be okay on those hundreds of channels. Perhaps it is just the plethora of options in HD on a big screen (improved TV technology goes a long ways, particularly for live events). Or maybe it is that TV doesn’t require much energy while many of the other leisure activities require more personal investment. For those who see this as a sign of civilization’s decline, at least Americans are persistent in their love for TV…

7 PM liked by many college students in 20 countries

A recent multinational study finds that 7 PM may just be the most agreeable part of the day:

At 7 p.m., around the world, we all feel more or less the same about what we’re doing. That’s the finding from a massive study team, with 33 worldwide collaborators, led by psychologist Esther Guillaume of the University of California at Riverside. Sampling more than 5,400 individuals from 20 countries, the researchers found that people across countries (and within the same) made highly similar assessments of life at 7 p.m…

Across all 20 countries, participants gave very consistent RSQ ratings to life at 7 p.m. In general, people found whatever they were doing at that time to be “simple and clear-cut,” “social,” and “potentially enjoyable”; they also felt they were free to speak and feel a range of emotions. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated descriptions made reference to abuse, physical or emotional threats, loss of freedom, or deception…

Obviously a study this vast will carry some caveats. The most glaring are that despite the high sample size, most study participants were college students, with a median age of 22 years old. The RSQ itself was developed by U.S. researchers, rather than a global research consortium, and this was its maiden cross-cultural voyage. Neuroskeptic has a smart take on the study’s limitations:

Overall this is a fascinating study and a rich dataset. But while the sample was drawn from five continents, the participants were not selected at random: all of them were students or ‘members of college communities’. What’s more, all of the participating nations were politically stable and at least middle-income. Is life so generally happy in Iraq, South Sudan, or Haiti?

It sounds like the study suffers from an sampling issue that many psychology face: they have WEIRD participants. That acronym stands for participants from “Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic societies.” Even if this finding may not be applicable worldwide, it is still interesting within this set of countries. What happens at this time of day?

1. It is around the end of the work day. Many of these societies separate home and work life so people are returning home and looking to relax after a full work day.

2. It is around dinner time (in some places more than others).

3. Depending on the time of year, it is not too long after getting dark or there is still some time for sunlight. Regardless, night is coming and this can be associated with entertainment or relaxation or sleep.

4. Television schedules and evening events start around this time.

In other words, people in these countries generally have more free time and can make choices for this themselves at this time of day.

In new homes, American homebuyers want quality, space, and to disconnect

A large online survey of homebuyers reveal several big things they are looking for in a new home:

Again and again, they told us they were looking for quality more than quantity, and they said that, even when they were looking for a larger home than the one they currently have. One major attitude that was apparent was this huge desire to disconnect when they come home.

This seemed to show up in their interest in a house with an indoor-outdoor connection, where they could entertain and move easily from kitchen to the outdoors. Another way it showed up is, well, I’m not saying that anyone should disconnect their wireless (service), but this expressed need to disconnect suggests a huge trend for making the master bath feel more like a spa. Builders have to ask themselves, how do we help them disconnect from stress every day? Consumers told us they love a big shower but don’t lose the tub. We asked, “But will you use the tub?” and they said, “Um, maybe not much.” But they want it to be there — 65 percent said they still want a tub in the master bath.

Q: Isn’t that also sort of the way they feel about the dining room — that room that builders have said for years that nobody wants or needs any more?

A: They still want a formal dining room. They want their holiday dinners where they can expand out to 10 or 12 people. A lot of builders have been building houses with just a great room (that could accommodate a large dining table), but 59 percent want a great room and one or two more formal spaces.

The quality and space concerns are not too surprising: they likely want lasting homes that will retain their value and are looking to upgrade to a bigger home. More interesting to me was this desire to disconnect, to feel like their home offers a respite from the outside world. This was one of the impulses behind the separation of work and home life in the modern era: as the world industrialized and cities grew, people started viewing homes as refuges. This put more emphasis on the single-family home as well as on the nuclear family, promoting more private lives. While these private lives have been criticized from a range of people who don’t like the drop-off in community life or the lack of civic engagement (ranging from Bowling Alone to New Urbanists), this desire for private retreats still appears to hold true. What the retreat might look like could take multiple forms – from the room centered on the giant TV to a spa-like bathroom to a backyard oasis to a man-cave – but the money goes toward making sure residents can put off the outside world just a little longer.

Driverless cars will lead to increased worker productivity

Dan Neil writes about the inevitability of driverless cars and brings up an interesting benefit: Americans will suddenly have more time on their hands.

The one brilliant part of the U.S. economic profile is productivity. It turns out, Americans are a little nutty when it comes to work.

If autonomy were fully implemented today, there would be roughly 100 million Americans sitting in their cars and trucks tomorrow, by themselves, with time on their hands. It would be, from an economist’s point of view, the Pennsylvania oil fields of man-hours, a beautiful gusher, a bonanza of reverie washing upon our shores.

In the history of human civilization, has there ever been a society to offer so much uninterrupted head space to so many? Europe’s medieval monastic tradition created scholars, true, but only a relative handful…

It’s possible that all these suddenly idle driver/passengers will waste their gift, texting, watching TV or worse. But many of them, like me, would beaver into work, happy to get a jump on the day.

And here’s the best part. I always get my best ideas in the car—in solitude, watching the unwinding of the road, hearing the thrum of the tires. You know that space, right?

Hurray – more time to work! Neil might be excited about this but I first think of all the opportunities for mixing the boundaries of home and work even further. Thinking more broadly, is productivity something we want to continue to chase as a society? Do Americans really need to be working more?

On the other hand, this could be a big boon for several sectors. Think about media companies: Americans would then have on average something like 40-60 minutes more per day to consume television shows, websites, podcasts, music, etc. Or perhaps it could give rise to all sorts of services and car add-ons; I’m thinking of the Honda Odyssey commercials from a while back showing moms going to the minivan to relax and get a facial.

 

How jobless Americans are spending their time

Some new research suggests that unemployed Americans are doing a variety of things:

One study last year found that much of the extra time gets spent sleeping and watching TV–leading to news reports that the jobless “frittered away” their time. Another analysis–this one released in January and co-written by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, who was announced Monday as the White House’s pick to serve as the chief economic adviser to President Obama–pointed in the same direction. It found that people tend to devote fewer hours to job searches the longer they’ve been unemployed, and that sleep–especially “sleep in the morning hours”–increases as joblessness goes on. Together, the studies appeared to create a picture of the unemployed as lazy and unproductive.But a sophisticated new analysis (pdf) complicates that picture. In a paper written for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Mark A. Aguiar, Erik Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis, using data from the American Time Use Survey, found that the jobless do spend about 30 percent of their extra time–the time they would otherwise have spent working–sleeping or watching TV, and another 20 percent on other leisure activities. But around 35 percent is spent doing unpaid but nonetheless important work, like child-care and housework. And other investments–things like education, health-care, and volunteer work –account for another 10 percent.

The notion advanced by some that jobless benefits are being used to support a life of leisure is, at best, simplistic.

But as Nancy Folbre, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, notes, there’s a limit to how much useful unpaid work the jobless can do. “They lack the capital, land, tools and skills needed to flexibly shift from wage employment to production for their own use.,” she writes. “Even when they can make a partial shift, their productivity is likely to be lower in unpaid work than paid work.”

I’m a little surprised by the quote from an economist at the end: unpaid work still needs to be done by someone whether they currently have the skills for it or not. Perhaps she is referring to longer-term issues: do the unemployed go back to work (perhaps by changing fields or getting educated in new areas) or do they adjust to a life of unpaid work? In the meantime, there is a transition that has to be made. But I can imagine that some people would see this quote and wonder what this means for people who have always done unpaid work, particularly mothers.

Another way to interpret the earlier study that the unemployed enjoy a life of leisure is that this is due to feelings of restlessness and perhaps even depression.

In general, I find time use studies to be quite interesting. When you ask people general questions about how they spend their time, like how long they spend at work, the numbers can be quite inflated. The better studies require logs or diaries and ask questions about recent time periods where memories will not be as distorted. Here is how the American Time Use Study describes some of its methodology (starting at page 11 of this document):

The ATUS sample is randomized by day, with 50 percent of the sample reporting about
weekdays, Monday through Friday, and 50 percent reporting about Saturday and
Sunday. Designated persons must report about their activities on their designated day,
without any substitution of days…

The ATUS interview is a combination of structured questions and conversational
interviewing. It consists of four major topics: the household roster, the time diary, the
summary questions, and a section related to information collected in the eighth CPS
interview. The portion of the interview relating to the CPS is divided into four sections:
labor force status, looking for work, industry and occupation, and earnings and school
enrollment. These questions are used to update or confirm time-sensitive CPS data or
to fill in missing CPS data. Each section is described below in more detail…

For all parts of the interview except the collection of the time-use diary data (in
section 4, above), interviewers read scripted text on the CATI screen and enter the
reported responses.

For the time-use diary, the interviewer uses conversational interviewing rather than
asking scripted questions. This is a more flexible interviewing technique designed to
allow the respondent to report on his or her activities comfortably and accurately. This
technique also allows interviewers to use methods to guide respondents through memory lapses, to probe in a nonleading way for the level of detail required to code activities, and to redirect respondents who are providing unnecessary information. As each activity is reported, the interviewer records the verbatim responses on a new activity line. The interviewers are trained to ensure that the respondent reports
activities (and activity durations) actually done on the previous (diary) day, not
activities done on a “usual” day. Interviewers do this by placing continual emphasis on
the word “yesterday” throughout the interview.

This study relies on both a diary and asking questions about yesterday.