With fewer fire escapes, where do NYC residents escape to?

Fire escapes are not needed in newer buildings but a number of New York City residents enjoy having them:

New York City’s 1968 building code no longer allowed fire escapes in new buildings. Modern buildings are equipped with sprinkler systems and interior stairwells.

Yet fire escapes are so woven into the urban fabric of the city that the Landmarks Preservation Commission is often called on to decide whether an old building that is being renovated should keep its metal appendage, as the commission did in March, when residents protested a developer’s plan to remove fire escapes from two buildings on Greene Street in SoHo. (The commission allowed the change.)…

Introduced in the mid-1800s, the iron Z’s that still cling to thousands of city apartment buildings became so synonymous with New York life that they made cameos in “West Side Story,” “Rear Window” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Since then, air-conditioning and modern fire prevention have chipped away at the necessity of fire escapes. But the romance remains: In a city of people starved for space, light and air, fire escapes double as storage closets, front porches and back gardens, a perch of one’s own above the bustle of the street…

Even then — to say nothing of now — fire professionals had their doubts about fire escapes. The National Fire Protection Association noted in 1914 that they were often hard to reach; poorly designed and badly maintained; lacking ladders or stairs from the ground to the second floor; and blocked by residents’ possessions. (People often aired their mattresses and chilled their perishables there.)

While fire escapes may be on the way out outside of protected buildings, I want to know about the effect of their disappearance: where exactly do New Yorkers go now to get their moment alone? In a city with some of the highest real estate prices in the world and a booming luxury market, space is at a premium. Cities often have a reputation for bombarding the individual with all their activity and potential social interactions. Georg Simmel made such a point in his famous piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life” where he suggested people respond by developing a blase attitude to block out all the stimulus.

Perhaps city residents have traded older versions of private spaces – like fire escapes – for new ones like smartphone screens and headphones which allow the user to be more private in public settings such as a park or Starbucks.

The “intensification of nervous stimulation” in documentaries of the cities of China and Taiwan

Two new documentaries suggest the rapid urbanization of Chinese and Taiwanese cities may not be orderly:

Armed with newly available digital video equipment, independent documentarians have given Chinese filmmaking a genuine vanguard. “Disorder” is among the most disjunctive and disturbing of recent exposés. The movie’s first image shows a broken water main gushing like Old Faithful in the midst of a busy thoroughfare. The second shot frames a pedestrian beneath a car, the apparent victim of a traffic accident. Later he is seen — still lying in the street — bargaining for a payoff with the driver who struck him…

For 58 minutes, “Disorder” bombards the viewer with interwoven bulletins, presented without comment. Many are grotesque human-interest stories: Shops peddle illegal bear paws; escaped pigs roam the highway; a cockroach emerges from a bowl of noodles. One man brandishes what looks like a live crocodile, another washes himself in a polluted tributary of the Pearl River. Other sequences are more violent recordings of arguments and breakdowns. Civilians brawl with the police, and the movie ends with a remarkable sequence of cops beating a man nearly to death…

Most scenes are a single shot, without causal links to what precedes or may follow. Chronology is obscure; so is motivation. “Stray Dogs” won the grand jury prize at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, and given its radical near-absence of narrative, the movie has been a polarizing work. Some critics, including Stephen Holden, who reviewed “Stray Dogs” in The New York Times when it opened here last September, see it as akin to a gallery film installation. Others have noted that Mr. Tsai’s emphasis on activities shown in real time is suggestive of performance art…

Like other films by Mr. Tsai, it has a postapocalyptic feel. Torrential rain is virtually constant, and Taipei feels depopulated — a place where events, mostly concerning food and shelter, may be staged in situ. The aesthetic tension between Mr. Tsai’s beautifully lit and framed compositions and the desolation of his characters’ lives is disconcerting. They do not live in the metropolis so much as haunt its ruins.

The reviewer links the films to the thoughts of Georg Simmel in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel argued the individual would be overwhelmed in the modern city since there are too many things going on. To fight back, the individual would need to adopt a blase attitude. Perhaps, then, we can see these documentaries as attempts to gain some distance from the chaos of the urbanizing megacity. At the same time, modern film seems particularly well-suited to hinting at Simmel’s predictions given the prominence and frequent use of rapid cuts or non-traditional narratives (i.e., non-linear).

Of course, documentaries don’t have to be made this way. Indeed, it would be interesting to contrast these two with films that show the mundane and sequential features of modern life in a big city: going places, working low-skill and/or repetitive jobs, shopping or searching for necessities, child care, sleeping. Alas, these might not lend themselves as well to screens that want pretty rapid takes on what life looks like.

Sociologist on how urban sprawl contributes to stress, limits community

A sociologist argues urban sprawl boosts stress levels and inhibits social interactions:

Urban sprawl in Alberta’s two largest cities could be contributing to high stress levels and lack of community ties reported in the province, a sociologist suggests.

Statistics Canada’s age-standardized figures show nearly a quarter of Alberta’s population aged 15 and older perceive most days as “quite a bit or extremely stressful.”

Out of the 10 Canadian provinces, Alberta was second-highest for perceived life stress — second only to Quebec — in 2011.

It also had the second-lowest percentage of the population aged 12 and over who reported their sense of belonging to the local community as being “very strong or somewhat strong” — higher only than Quebec.

Tim Haney, an urban sociology expert and assistant professor at Mount Royal University, said the way Calgary, and more recently Edmonton, are growing outward affects residents’ quality of life.

Difficulty or inconvenience commuting from place to place can impact a person’s relationships and ability develop some sense of community, he said.

This sounds like possible correlations – we would have to see more specific data before making any conclusions. But, these arguments are related to earlier theories and findings. Some of the early sociologists, people like Georg Simmel, worried about how individuals would survive in cities. Simmel didn’t think much about suburbs but perhaps his ideas about “nervous stimulation” in cities could be adapted to suburban settings where there is less regular interaction with strangers but still a lot of movement (particularly driving) amidst populated areas. Also, Robert Putnam argued in Bowling Alone that sprawl contributed to a decline in community life and civic engagement.

If all of this is true and life in sprawl does include a stress penalty, this is an interesting trade-off for Americans: buy a bigger and cheaper house within the sprawl and participate in the suburban good life but have more stress than living elsewhere.

How living in the city affects social behavior

Recent research and commentators have suggested that cities are greener and more innovative. This post from The Infrastructurist summarizes recent research on another possible outcome of interest for city residents: prosocial behavior.

Using census data, Samuel Arbesman and Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard Medical School examined urban populations for their tendencies to display several prosocial behaviors, including voting, organ donation, and political contribution. As they report in the journal Physica A (in press), Arbesman and Christakis believed this positive social behavior would indeed be superlinear, in part to offset the less desirable elements of a city, such as crime:

If larger networks … fostered increases in violence more rapidly than, say, increases in kindness, city growth would be constrained in a fundamental way.

What they found, however, was that prosocial behaviors “do not obey a clear pattern.” People in cities aren’t more likely to vote or to donate a living organ, though they’re much more likely to give a deceased organ or a political contribution. Taken together, these positive behaviors do not scale the same way that innovation and economic growth typically scale within cities. In short, conclude Arbesman and Christakis, “prosocial behavior is not a single category when it comes to understanding urban scaling with respect to population.”

The mixed results harmonize with previous findings. Some studies have found that people in cities are more likely to return a lost letter than those in both suburbs and small towns. Others have found that willingness to trust strangers declines as a region’s population grows.

The unexpected findings might be explained, in part, by which behaviors the researchers chose to define as “prosocial.” Political contributions, particularly the sizable sort found in cities, could rightfully be considered a selfish endeavor, as opposed to a positive social one. (At the same time, it seems likely that Arbesman and Christakis were limited by available data sets.)

These results are interesting for several reasons. First, there are methodological questions: do we have data in which researchers in the city were specifically looking at prosocial behaviors? A common approach to looking at social behavior and networks these days asks respondents to name their five closest friends and then how closely their personal beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes align with the respondent. But if this study is based on Census data, these social network questions are not present. I’m not quite sure why political contributions would not be considered prosocial – participating in the civic process would seem to be part of being prosocial.

Second, these questions about prosocial behavior are not new. Some of the earliest sociologists developed the discipline for exactly these reasons: what would happen to relationships and society with more and more people moving from small, rural communities to large, anonymous cities? Durkheim and Tönnies developed typologies to explain this: mechanical and organic solidarity and gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, respectively. Simmel, in particular, seemed worried about the effect that the city would have on individuals. He talked about how urban individuals would need to develop blasé attitudes in order to cope with all of the commotion and people they would meet. Simmel continued on to ask whether the individual could maintain their individuality amidst the life of the big city.

It would be interesting to look at data over the years about American perceptions about whether city or suburban dwellers are more prosocial (if such data is available). On one hand, the suburbs are supposed to be the place where kids run free and families know each other yet we talk about how people just drive in and out of their garages without ever knowing their neighbors. On the other hand, we see reports all the time about crime and disorder in the city even as we occasionally hear stories of vibrant neighborhood and storefront life. My guess would be that the suburbs win out easily in this battle of perceptions – even as the research data is mixed on whether city or suburban residents actually exhibit more prosocial behavior.