Looking at inequality in NYC by translating wealth differences into building heights

It can be difficult to visualize inequality but here is an innovative way of doing so: imagining wealth as buildings in New York City.

In his most recent visualization project, the Pittsburgh-based artist and researcher re-imagines what the city’s skyline would look like if building height were a direct reflection of a neighborhood’s net household wealth. “I was inspired to create this project after standing atop Mt. Washington in my hometown of Pittsburgh and looking at the Pittsburgh skyline,” he explains. “I thought to myself, ‘What if you could actually see inequality?’ This relatively even landscape would look much different.”

Lamm, who is responsible for other viral visualizations like Normal Barbie, translated Esri’s map of median household net worth in New York City (based on 2010 Census data) into the bright green 3-D bars you’re looking at. Every $100,000 of net worth in a section on Esri’s map equals one centimeter in height on Lamm’s visualization. So if one section (which appears to consist of multiple blocks) had a net worth of $500,000, Lamm’s rendering would measure 5 cm high. Similarly, if another section had a net worth of $80,000, the green would appear at a much flatter 0.8 cm.

Of the maps/visualizations available here, the best one is probably the first one that shows much of Manhattan from the northwest looking southeast.

Choosing to visualize wealth rather than income is a strategic choice. Much talk about inequality involves income but this may be the wrong metric. Income is more about short-term access to money but wealth may be more important for longer-term outcomes (purchasing a house, etc.) and the wealth differences between groups are quite a big larger. For example, the differences in wealth between the top 5% and the rest of America are astounding as are the differences between whites and blacks as well as Latinos.

Additionally, singling out New York, particularly Manhattan, is an interesting choice. The differences here are indeed stark. Manhattan is the seat of the financial sector. But, few places in the United States would have this much wealth inequality.

Observed in Manhattan: online shopping leads to more traffic

A graduate student in Manhattan argues that more online shopping leads to more traffic issues on the dense island:

Consider it this way: people around the world seem to have a travel time budget of a little over an hour each day. Before the rise of e-commerce, part of that time would have been spent in the service of purchasing goods. But if that budget remains fixed, then people today may simply buy something online, then hop in a car and go visit a friend across town. In that scenario, personal travel stays constant while commercial travel increases — a net gain of people and goods on the road…

Woodard’s case studies of the Gehry and three other residential apartments in Manhattan found the answer to those questions may very well be yes. Surveying the buildings for several hours at a time in the middle of the day, Woodard found that, on average, delivery trucks stayed parked for 21 minutes at a time, and two-thirds of them were double-parked. Extrapolating the data over a full day, in the case of the Gehry, that means delivery trucks alone occupy road space that’s not a true parking space for seven full hours…

Though Woodard’s case studies were never supposed to paint an exhaustive portrait of the urban e-commerce problem, they do underscore how little is known about it. One study from way back in 2004 estimated that delivery trucks cause nearly a million hours of vehicle delay each year, but the stunning grown in online shopping since then (and the fact that companies like Amazon are reluctant to release their data) makes any precise estimate difficult. Many experts consider this process of moving freight that final mile to be one of the biggest forgotten problems facing modern cities.

At the core of the problem is street parking. In a dense urban area like Manhattan, where few buildings have the luxury of freight docks or loading zones, delivery trucks have little choice but to park at the curb. That leaves passenger vehicles and delivery trucks to duke it out for precious street-parking space, which in turn leads to double-parking, which in turn leads to general congestion.

Interesting question and findings. How much do they apply beyond Manhattan, a dense place?

One issue not addressed here: how much do commerce companies bear responsibility for this congestion? Shopping online is often viewed as cheaper and more convenient but this analysis suggests there are some hidden costs that someone has to pay for. Roads are public goods paid for with tax dollars. If they are causing more congestion, could they bear some of this cost?

President Obama wants to turn American suburbs into Manhattan?

Conservatives continue to worry that President Obama is opposed to suburbs:

The most obvious new element of the president’s regionalist policy initiative is the July 19 publication of a Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation broadening the obligation of recipients of federal aid to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The apparent purpose of this rule change is to force suburban neighborhoods with no record of housing discrimination to build more public housing targeted to ethnic and racial minorities. Several administration critics noticed the change and challenged it, while the mainstream press has simply declined to cover the story.

Yet even critics have missed the real thrust of HUD’s revolutionary rule change. That’s understandable, since the Obama administration is at pains to downplay the regionalist philosophy behind its new directive. The truth is, HUD’s new rule is about a great deal more than forcing racial and ethnic diversity on the suburbs. (Regionalism, by the way, is actually highly controversial among minority groups. There are many ways in which both middle-class minorities in suburbs, and less well-off minorities in cities, can be hurt by regionalist policies–another reason those plans are seldom discussed.)

The new HUD rule is really about changing the way Americans live. It is part of a broader suite of initiatives designed to block suburban development, press Americans into hyper-dense cities, and force us out of our cars. Government-mandated ethnic and racial diversification plays a role in this scheme, yet the broader goal is forced “economic integration.” The ultimate vision is to make all neighborhoods more or less alike, turning traditional cities into ultra-dense Manhattans, while making suburbs look more like cities do now. In this centrally-planned utopia, steadily increasing numbers will live cheek-by-jowl in “stack and pack” high-rises close to public transportation, while automobiles fall into relative disuse. To understand how HUD’s new rule will help enact this vision, we need to turn to a less-well-known example of the Obama administration’s regionalist interventionism…

The Plan Bay Area precedent makes it clear that HUD will use data on access to housing, jobs, and transportation to press densification on both urban and suburban jurisdictions. With the new HUD rule in place, municipalities will be under heavy pressure to allow multifamily developments in areas previously zoned for single-family housing. The new counting scheme, which measures access to housing, jobs, and transportation, will simultaneously create pressures to push businesses into the newly densified areas, and to locate those centers near transportation hubs. In effect, HUD’s new rule gives the federal government a tool to press ultra-dense Plan Bay Area-style “priority development areas” on regions across the country.

Housing discrimination is a real issue as is the lack of affordable housing. Leaving it to “the market” to sort this all out isn’t really working.

Also, there is some hyperbole going on here. See similar claims from conservatives about the US joining with the United Nations to push urban density. Pushing denser suburbs does not necessarily mean that all suburbs are going to be Manhattan. In fact, Manhattan is very unusual even among American cities for its density. Interestingly, the thriving cities of today are Sunbelt cities like Houston that tend to be less dense than traditional big cities in the Northeast or Midwest. Kurtz seems to be defending unmitigated sprawl, the idea that suburbs should have as little density as they like. This tends to be linked to greater local control as well as wealth – it is more expensive to have big lots/pieces of land. Additionally, less dense sprawl is viewed as the opposite of city life with its forced interactions with people different than you, less space, dirtiness, and urban problems (this perspective tends to ignores the benefits of urban life).

There are problems with unmitigated sprawl, even if people with means may desire it. Like any kind of development, there are tradeoffs involved. It is can be costly environmentally, tied to issues of land use and water runoff, among others. It leads to more driving which can be viewed as the ultimate expression of American independence but which also involves longer commutes, less walking, more traffic, and the expensive actions of owning and operating a car. It can be related to weaker communities and social relationships – see the discussion about sprawl in Bowling Alone. Its infrastructure is costly as roads, electric lines, gas lines, and local services are more spread out. Additionally, the fate of suburbs are linked to cities – the two areas are not independent (though they may appear to be so, say, when comparing Detroit with some of its wealthier suburbs) and problems in one area affect the other.

Having denser suburbs does not mean the American suburban way of life will disappear. It may mean smaller lots and less driving plus more mixed uses and new people in the suburbs but this does not necessarily equal Manhattan.

Anthropologist behind story of Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to bypass Disney lines

Lost a bit in the story about Manhattan moms who hire disabled tour guides to avoid lines at Disney is how the story came out: from the research of an anthropologist.

“It’s insider knowledge that very few have and share carefully,” said social anthropologist Dr. Wednesday Martin, who caught wind of the underground network while doing research for her upcoming book “Primates of Park Avenue.”

“Who wants a speed pass when you can use your black-market handicapped guide to circumvent the lines all together?” she said.

“So when you’re doing it, you’re affirming that you are one of the privileged insiders who has and shares this information.”

A win for social science? Perhaps not – Wednesday Martin was trained in comparative literature. I imagine there is some more backstory to this including how Martin found out about this practice and how this information made it to the media. Here is more about the book with an intriguing title which is to be released next year:

What happens when an anthropologist from the Midwest moves to Manhattan’s most prestigious zip code…and raises her children there? Primates of Park Avenue is an anthropological memoir of Manhattan motherhood by Dr. Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin, 2009).  By turns hilarious, touching and insightful, Primates of Park Avenue reveals the pressures, conundrums and competition that make mothers and mothering in Manhattan unique. From a deconstruction of the exercise and self-care practices of the caste of women with children she calls “Manhattan Geishas” to the lurid details of her own crazed pursuit of a Birkin bag; to an analysis of the rites of passage like the coop board interview, the gut renovation, bed bug battles and “ongoing” school applications that brought her to her knees; to an exploration of what she calls “the world’s most complicated, fraught, and misrepresented relationship, the dance between mothers and the nannies they hire to help them raise their children”; to an inside view of the galas, benefits, kiddie birthday parties and other extravaganzas of conspicuous consumption that define her adopted tribe, Martin spares no detail in exploring what makes Uptown motherhood strange, exotic and utterly foreign and fascinating. At the same time, Primates of Park Avenue illuminates the quests, anxieties and ambitions–for a healthy, happy child, a good night’s sleep, sexual satisfaction, financial security and a concealer that actually works–that connect women with children all across the country and all over the world.

An “anthropological memoir” – this might be easier for the general public to understand than saying it is a personal ethnography. It sounds like the book, in the words of one of my colleagues, will take the familiar, the wealthy in New York City, and make it exotic.

Solar and wind energy sprawl

Here is a different kind of sprawl: in order to produce large amounts of electricity from solar and wind power, solar and wind installations will need a large amount of land:

But there’s the rub: while energy sources like sunlight and wind are free and naturally replenished, converting them into large quantities of electricity requires vast amounts of natural resources — most notably, land. Even a cursory look at these costs exposes the deep contradictions in the renewable energy movement…

The math is simple: to have 8,500 megawatts of solar capacity, California would need at least 23 projects the size of Ivanpah, covering about 129 square miles, an area more than five times as large as Manhattan. While there’s plenty of land in the Mojave, projects as big as Ivanpah raise environmental concerns. In April, the federal Bureau of Land Management ordered a halt to construction on part of the facility out of concern for the desert tortoise, which is protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Wind energy projects require even more land. The Roscoe wind farm in Texas, which has a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, covers about 154 square miles. Again, the math is straightforward: to have 8,500 megawatts of wind generation capacity, California would likely need to set aside an area equivalent to more than 70 Manhattans. Apart from the impact on the environment itself, few if any people could live on the land because of the noise (and the infrasound, which is inaudible to most humans but potentially harmful) produced by the turbines…

Not all environmentalists ignore renewable energy’s land requirements. The Nature Conservancy has coined the term “energy sprawl” to describe it. Unfortunately, energy sprawl is only one of the ways that renewable energy makes heavy demands on natural resources.

The commentator goes on to recommend using more nuclear and natural gas power as “have smaller footprints.” Is this claim of “sprawl” just a distraction to keep people away from these energy uses? Sprawl is not usually a word you want to be associated with. It implies the wasteful and haphazard use of land, typically referring to the American suburbs where cookie-cutter subdivisions, strip malls, and asphalt (roads and parking lots) have covered open land.

There is still American land that could be used as 5.6% of American land is developed (though farmland might be getting more expensive). What if these power plants were built on land that is already unusable or not arable? Of course, any kind of use would displace animal habitats and disrupt open space – there seem to be more stories these days about the ill effects of wind farms on both nearby animal and human life. But is open space or renewable energy more important? The real question here is whether the use of large amounts of land for green energy is a worthwhile tradeoff compared to other energy sources.

(The use of “a Manhattan” as a unit is interesting: I think it is supposed to represent a recognizable and decent sized chunk of land. We are told you would need “more than 70 Manhattans” to provide electricity for California. But compared to the vastness of the United States, this unit size is silly. Manhattan is 23 square miles so “More than 70 Manhattans” is at least 1,610 square miles. Rhode Island, “the nation’s yardstick,” has 1,045 square miles of land or about 1,500 square miles if you include water (according to the Census). If we roughly multiplied California’s needs times 8 (308 million total Americans divided by California’s roughly 37 million people), we would need about 13,500 square miles for green energy – this is a little bigger than Maryland as a whole. The US has 3.79 million square miles. So there would be room for this green energy (though you would then have to factor in transmission lines) somewhere in the United States.)

h/t Instapundit and The Volokh Conspiracy

Manhattan’s grid created 200 years ago

Manhattan, the center of New York City, is famous for its street grid running throughout the whole island. Read a short celebration of this grid’s 200th anniversary (which was actually March 21) here. Not only is the grid orderly but it cut the island into developable lots and very quickly, land speculation became a favorite pastime.

What current-day people often forget is that this grid was laid out long before New York City had advanced very far north on the island. This map from the New York City Department of City Planning up to 1998 shows that growth was limited to the southern tip of the island for much of the period that the island has had European inhabitants. (The quality of this online map is atrocious – perhaps they really do want people to send in $3.) And if you want a longer-term view, why not go back to 1609 and compare NYC blocks then and now?

Becoming more popular in New York City: the pod hotel

In order to provide hotels at a cheaper price in New York City, several groups are building “pod hotels.” These hotels are characterized by their small, but well-appointed, rooms:

With their wood paneling, velvet benches and Oriental carpets, most of the 150 rooms occupy just 50 square feet (4.6 square meters) and recalls boat cabins. A large mirror hangs on the wall to counter any claustrophobic feelings…

These hotels promise “micro-luxury:” air conditioning, a safe, a flat-screen television and free Wi-Fi. The Jane also offers its clients a bathrobe and slippers.

“We don’t sell a bed, we sell a room,” said Pod Hotel managing director David Bernstein. “The atmosphere is much cleaner and more upscale than in a hostel. The size is really what makes them affordable.”

As long as they can avoid the New York problem of bedbugs, I can imagine these would be popular in a city full of expensive hotels.

The first Target arrives in Manhattan

Ariel Kaminer writes in the New York Times about shopping at the first Target in Manhattan which is located in East Harlem:

It is a sharp contrast to hopping from store to store for kitchen tools here, socks there, electronics in yet another place… That dominant New York shopping model has its charms, but really, remind me what they are. I like local merchants as much as the next New York nostalgist, but on a torpid summer day there is much to be said for the suburban efficiency of one-stop shopping…

It all seems so convenient (and cheap) that you start to think you should just buy everything then and there, to have on hand when you need it.

But what did I need? … Four Riedel wine glasses ($39.99)? (When the same brand is available at Target and Tiffany, it’s time to re-evaluate the distinction between mass and class.)…

After several hours, I found myself wandering through the aisles with my shopping cart, glassy-eyed from the sheer glut of choices, idly reaching for things that I felt no special connection to. It was time to go.

Kaminer appears to be thinking through the implications of  of big box shopping stores that offers consumers many cheap options (and even some high-end fare). Granted, this one-stop shopping has not just been the domain of suburbanites: it has been available in department stores for a long time. But the experience of going to a downtown Macy’s or Marshall Field’s still seems quite different than going to Target. Those department stores were and still are more of an experience and you pay for that experience as opposed to a Target or Wal-Mart or Home Depot where the goal is primarily efficiency and low prices.

Additionally, the construction of urban malls and shopping centers (but usually lacking the abundant parking lots) really lowers the walls between the urban and suburban shopping experience. This Target is located in “the first retail power center in Manhattan” that also features Best Buy, Old Navy, and Costco. Though it is mainly accessible by subway, the dominant world of American shopping – malls and big box stores – is now available to Manhattanites.