“To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil”

A reflection on the recent book Radical Suburbs includes this paragraph about critiquing American suburbs:

To urbanists, suburbia is self-evidently evil: sprawl is an environmental disaster, subsidized by lavish post-World War II road-building programs and the mortgage interest deduction (which promotes home ownership) and turbo-charged by low interest rates. Why would any sophisticated architectural thinker want to get involved with such iniquity? In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art tried to rouse a group of high-caliber architects to stage a suburban intervention in the wake of the 2008 recession and the foreclosure crisis that followed. The show, “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,” was well-meaning and inventive but it left no trace in the real world, and the designers who were recruited to rethink towns and subdivisions didn’t return to the topic. The trouble with throwing up your hands at suburbia’s obstacles and contradictions is that it means giving up on most of the country.

And plenty of suburbanites notice the negative assessment of suburban living:

Getting ignored by snobs is just fine with millions of Americans, whose only complaint about their center-less towns is when they become too much like cities: clogged, expensive, and big.

Presumably, this writer is trying to model a different way: working in small ways to push suburbs toward more density and more community without asking suburbanites to give up everything they say they like:

One radical step would be for towns to hold competitions, inviting the world’s designers to make adjustments to their layouts—not to plow them under or replace them with faux urban centers, but to find new ways to tweak roads, shorten commutes, and encourage people to live in closer quarters—all while satisfying the desires of privacy, peace, and contact with nature that lured people out of the city in the first place.

Tying far-flung suburbs together with public transit is expensive, complex, and controversial, but modest modifications aren’t. It’s not insurmountable to recycle dead malls into community centers, art spaces, and indoor plazas; to lay down footpaths that steer clear of cars and converge on a park or a playground; to legalize back alleys and rentable granny flats— standard items in the New Urbanist toolkit.

This approach might be dubbed “urban-lite” or “retrofitted suburbia” or “surban.” All of these get at putting together denser pockets of suburbia without needing to get rid of all of the sprawling areas. This is the pragmatic approach to transforming suburbs rather than hinting at the nuclear option of moving everyone to cities (as some fear).

Similarly, middle-range steps to altering suburbs also can help those opposed to suburbs make strong value judgments that will simply provoke defensiveness among suburbanites. Tell someone their lifestyle is evil or wrong and this likely will not prompt the response the critiquer desires. And American suburbanites have heard some version of this critique for at least six decades and continued to move there. Amidst the similar architecture, the conformity, the mass consumer culture, the private space that enriches only the homeowners, the lack of community, and the effect on the environment, Americans have moved to and have been pushed to the suburbs in large numbers. Did these critiques have any effect on making some think twice?

Defining gentrification and gentrifier with moral dimensions

A new academic book on gentrification suggests the term – and the people involved in bringing about the process – may not be so easy to define:

According to Jason Patch, co-author of the book “Gentrifier” and associate professor at Roger Williams University, it is the reinvestment into a devalued neighborhood to create a new residential and commercial infrastructure for middle- and high-income residents…

“The assignment of the term ‘gentrifier’ becomes sticky only when we assign moral weight to the term. And many do so,” writes John Joe Schlichtman, an associate professor in the sociology department at DePaul University, in “Gentrifier.” Schlichtman is a co-author of the book, alongside Patch and Marc Lamont Hill. “Our interpretation of others’ gentrification is inevitably and inextricably tied in some way to our understanding of our own housing choices.”

According to Schlichtman, gentrification need not depend on the misplaced motives of housing consumers. To be a gentrifier is to be a middle-class housing consumer investing in a disinvested area in a period during which a critical mass of others are doing the same. This investment exerts pressure on the neighborhood — in the form of rising rents, or perhaps a shift in the nature of local policing, a change in the rhythms of the neighborhood, and so on.

“Yes, there could be gentrifiers with bad motives out there, but you don’t have to have bad motives to be a gentrifier,” Schlichtman said in an interview. “We need to take the depth of ethical and moral disgust out of the name gentrifier so that we can get people together and say this is something that we are a part of, but it’s also something that is bigger than us. … So how do we move forward?”

 

Some of the context that is important to know for why using the term “gentrifier” matters is explained in my recent post on residential segregation and race. Gentrification is not just about new, wealthier residents moving into a neighborhood; it involves race, class, and the history of housing in the United States.

Additionally, it strikes me that gentrification/gentrifier are words that function similarly to McMansion: in regular conversation, there is little positive implied by any of these words.

Online experiment looks at “who driverless cars should kill”

Experiments don’t have to take place in a laboratory: the MIT Media Lab put together the “Moral Machine” to look into how people think driverless cars should operate.

That’s the premise behind “Moral Machine,” a creation of Scalable Corporation for MIT Media Lab. People who participate are asked 13 questions, all with just two options. In every scenario, a self-driving car with sudden brake failure has to make a choice: continue ahead, running into whatever is in front, or swerve out of the way, hitting whatever is in the other lane. These are all variations on philosophy’s “Trolley Problem,” first formulated in the late 1960s and named a little bit later. The question: “is it more just to pull a lever, sending a trolley down a different track to kill one person, or to leave the trolley on its course, where it will kill five?” is an inherently moral problem, and slight variations can change greatly how people choose to answer.

For the “Moral Machine,” there are lots of binary options: swerve vs. stay the course; pedestrians crossing legally vs. pedestrians jaywalking; humans vs. animals; and crash into pedestrians vs. crash in a way that kills the car’s occupants.

There is also, curiously, room for variation in the kinds of pedestrians the runaway car could hit. People in the scenario are male or female, children, adult, or elderly. They are athletic, nondescript, or large. They are executives, homeless, criminals, or nondescript. One question asked me to choose between saving a pregnant woman in a car, or saving “a boy, a female doctor, two female athletes, and a female executive.” I chose to swerve the car into the barricade, dooming the pregnant woman but saving the five other lives…

Trolley problems, like those offered by the Moral Machine, are eminently anticipated. At the end of the Moral Machine problem set, it informs test-takers that their answers were part of a data collection effort by scientists at the MIT Media Lab, for research into “autonomous machine ethics and society.” (There is a link people can click to opt-out of submitting their data to the survey).

It will be interesting to see what happens with these results. How does the experiment get around the sampling issue of who chooses to participate in such a study? Should the public get a voice in deciding how driverless cars are programmed to operate, particularly when it comes to life and death decisions? Are life and death decisions ultimately reducible to either/or choices?

At the same time, I like how this takes advantage of the Internet. This experiment could be conducted in a laboratory: subjects would be presented with a range of situations and asked to respond. But, the N possible in a lab is much lower than what is available online. Additionally, if this study is at the beginning of work regarding driverless cars, perhaps a big N with a less representative sample is more desirable just to get some idea of what people are thinking.

Exploring why Americans think their children are at such risk

Virginia Postrel summarizes a recent study looking at how Americans perceive the safety of children:

The researchers suspected that overestimating risk reflects moral convictions about proper parenting. To separate the two instincts, they created a series of surveys asking participants to rate the danger to children left alone in five specific circumstances: a 2 1/2 -year-old at home for 20 minutes eating a snack and watching “Frozen,” for instance, or a 6-year-old in a park about a mile from her house for 25 minutes. The reasons for the parent’s absence were varied randomly. It could be unintentional, for work, to volunteer for charity, to relax or to meet an illicit lover.

Because the child’s situation was exactly the same in all the intentional cases, the risks should also be identical. (Asked what the dangers might be, participants listed the same ones in all circumstances, with a stranger harming the child the most common, followed by an accident.) The unintentional case might be slightly more dangerous, because parents wouldn’t have a chance to make provisions for their absence such as giving the child a phone and emergency instructions or parking the car in the shade.

But survey respondents didn’t see things this way at all. “A mother’s unintentional absence was seen as safer for the child than a mother’s intentional absence for any reason, and a mother’s work-related absence was seen as more dangerous than an unintentional absence, but less dangerous than if the mother left to pursue an illicit sexual affair,” they write. The same was true for fathers, except that respondents rated leaving for work as posing no greater danger than leaving unintentionally. Moral disapproval informed beliefs about risks…

“People don’t only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral,” the researchers write. “They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so.”

This reminds me of the trolley problem. While it doesn’t deal with risk, it hints at how morality is involved in assessing situations. Good parenting today includes avoiding intentional absences (and even these can be ranked). Leaving a child for unintentional reasons is not so bad. Both are of equal risk – just as saving five lives in the trolley problem regardless of how it is accomplished – but not viewed the same.

Generally, we have difficulty these days estimating risk. Are we more in danger from a possible terrorist attack (limited risk) or getting into a car (one of the riskiest daily behaviors)? We don’t always assess situations rationally nor do we have all the information at our fingertips. I don’t know that the answer is to suggest we should be more rational all the time: this is difficult to do and may not even be desirable. In this particular case, it might be more prudent to explore where these ideas of morality come from and then work to alter those. Alas, this is also likely a lengthy task.

 

A McMansion as shorthand for the white, suburban privilege of Brock Turner

One blogger connects the case of Brock Turner to the suburban house to which he returned:

I googled the address. I don’t know why I did that– morbid curiosity always gets the better of me. I clicked the satellite image and squinted at the blurry photo of a roof. It’s just an ordinary upper-class McMansion, one of many, on a spastic squiggle of a street in the middle of a wealthy suburban development. The kind of place where people can have every luxury they want, unless what they want isn’t kitsch. True luxury that isn’t kitsch is reserved for the richer still, the astonishingly wealthy whose sons would not go to trial at all for rape– not for the Suburban-McMansion Rich whose sons serve three months if the press is bad enough.

A suburban McMansion fits the story a number of people have told regarding Turner’s actions and subsequent treatment by the criminal justice system. McMansion owners are typically white suburban people with money – not really rich, as this post suggests, but rich enough to expect others to be impressed with their standing (and home). In this narrative, the McMansion signals their posture to the world: we aren’t bad people and should be treated with respect.

It is tempting to link a house to a narrative in this way. On the other hand, what if Turner had returned to a more modest 1950s suburban ranch? Would we then see a connection to white conformity? Or, how about a early 20th century suburban bungalow that hints at the fastidious nature of whites who want to preserve some golden era? Or, would a pricey downtown condo conjure up images of high-flying urban nightlife? Since Turner is an unlikable figure to many, I suspect detractors could find all sorts of evidence from the consumer goods in his life – clothes, appearance, vehicle, shopping patterns, and home – to illustrate their dislike. Some of these objects may indeed be connected to white, middle/upper-middle class suburbanites.

This is the not the first time McMansions have been linked to immorality and crime. See, for example, the suggestions in Gone Girl. And such narratives have a much longer history in novels, films, and TV shows that in the postwar era loved to peel back the facade of suburban life to find its truly seemly underbelly. Whether such links and depictions are connected to demonstrable patterns of morality and criminality is another story…

 

Facebook wants global guidelines but has local standards

A recent addition to Facebook’s standards in Spain highlights a larger issue for the company: how to have consistent guidelines around the world while remaining respectful or relevant in local contexts.

For Facebook and other platforms like it, incidents such as the bullfighting kerfuffle betray a larger, existential difficulty: How can you possibly impose a single moral framework on a vast and varying patchwork of global communities?

If you ask Facebook this question, the social-media behemoth will deny doing any such thing. Facebook says its community standards are inert, universal, agnostic to place and time. The site doesn’t advance any worldview, it claims, besides the non-controversial opinion that people should “connect” online…

Facebook has modified its standards several times in response to pressure from advocacy groups – although the site has deliberately obscured those edits, and the process by which Facebook determines its guidelines remains stubbornly obtuse. On top of that, at least some of the low-level contract workers who enforce Facebook’s rules are embedded in the region – or at least the time zone – whose content they moderate. The social network staffs its moderation team in 24 languages, 24 hours a day…

And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework – one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.

I like the shift in this discussion from free speech issues (mentioned later in the article) to issues of a particular moral framework that corporations have and promote. Some might argue that simply by being a corporation there is a very clear framework: Facebook needs to make money. How exactly can the company claim to be truly about connection when there is an overriding concern? On the other hand, various companies across industries have had to wrestle with this issue: when a company expands into additional culture, how do they balance the existing moral framework with new frameworks? Customers are at stake but so are basic concerns of dealing with people on their own terms and respecting other approaches to the world.

But, with a global capitalistic system where Facebook play a prominent role (in terms of rapid growth, connecting people, and market value), can it truly be “neutral”? Like many other behemoth companies (think McDonald’s or Walmart), it will certainly encounter its share of dissenters in the years to come.

Calculator suggests developers can profit and build affordable housing

The Inclusionary Calculator suggests developers can typically make 10% profits and build 12-15% affordable housing at the same time:

It can feel like a mantra among private developers: Requirements by municipal governments to include affordable units in market-rate housing developments make those developments unprofitable, even unfeasible. It may be one of the most frequently repeated claims about housing in general. Can it possibly be right?

The Inclusionary Calculator is an effort to settle this question—and to prove that one major assumption about affordable housing is a myth. Developed by the Cornerstone Partnership, the tool allows users to simulate the balance sheets for market-rate developments for any number of scenarios. It accounts for factors such as costs of production, financing, affordability set-asides, and parking requirements…

“In almost every case, we could target a 10 percent profit for the developer and still leave at least 12 to 15 percent of the units to be affordable,” McCarthy says…

So, not only does inclusionary zoning not raise the costs of market-rate construction beyond reason, it also does not raise the price of market-rate units for homeowners. It eats away at developer profits. That makes affordable housing a moral question, not a feasibility issue: Do leaders dare to challenge developers on their profit margins?

The Inclusionary Calculator is available here after watching a training video and registering.

This poses a fascinating question in the housing industry (as well as for other sectors of the American economy): just how much profit is enough? Very few people outside the housing industry would have any idea how much money developers and others make on the construction and sale of housing units. Perhaps the process is deliberately opaque or perhaps it is simply complicated. But, I wonder how the public in many communities would respond if they knew that 10% profits were generally possible while also providing affordable housing.

Of course, this is just one hurdle in the construction of affordable housing. Not allowing developers to claim that they can’t make money would help the process but in many communities, neighbors would still complain. A NIMBY response often takes over; who lives in affordable housing? What does this signal to outsiders? Won’t this lower our property values?