Latest trend in American immigration involves newcomers from Asia

As the foreign-born population in the United States hits another record high, here is some data on who some of the latest immigrants are:

The share of the United States population that is foreign-born has reached its highest level since 1910, according to government data released last week. But in recent years, the numbers have been soaring not so much with Latin Americans sweeping across the border, but with educated people from Asia obtaining visas — families like the Patels, who have taken advantage of “family reunification” provisions that have been a cornerstone of federal immigration law for half a century…

“The big story here is just the massive misperception about the nature of immigration in the U.S.,” said Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, who specializes in immigration policy. “The lion’s share of public attention is focused on what is now a very small number of people coming here illegally and showing up at the border seeking asylum.

“The reality is that a growing percentage of immigrants coming to the U.S. are highly educated, and are exactly the sort of people we want to be attracting.”…

Madeline Hsu, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Austin, Texas, said there were only about 12,000 Indian immigrants in the United States in 1960. The foreign-born Indian population last year stood at about 2.6 million, according to the Brookings Institution, and it had risen by almost half since 2010.

To help put the current political debate over immigration in perspective, the broader trends of immigration in the United States could help. From broad-scale immigration from Europe from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s to the restrictions of the 1920s to the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Americans have swung back and forth about how much immigration should occur. The post-1965 era involves a large-scale swing back to more immigration and from non-European locations. Both of these are significant changes, even if it hearkens back to the late 1800s openness to immigration.

With this in mind, it may be easier to simply let the long-term trend of the last five decades continue. It is hard to imagine America today without all of the post-1965 immigrants. At the same time, the country’s history suggests there may be moments when sentiment turns on immigration. Either side of the immigration debate cannot be guaranteed that their perspective will necessarily win out.

This all suggests the issue at hand might be immigration but the larger, deeper issue could be significant social change.

Social change through a bureaucratic manual

Producing a manual may not seem like an effective pathway to social change but it can help in certain areas, such as new standards for bicycling in American cities:

To codify their emerging practice, they turned to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). NACTO had been formed in 1996 as a forum for big-city transportation planners to swap ideas, but it had never published a design guide before. That became one of its top priorities after Sadik-Khan was named president of the organization. For several months beginning in 2010, a group of 40 consultants and city transportation planners reviewed bike-lane designs from around the world and across the United States.

The result was NACTO’s Urban Bikeway Design Guide, the first national design standard for protected bike lanes. Like other standards, it answers the questions of space, time, and information that are at the heart of street design. How wide should a protected bike lane be? At least five feet, but ideally seven. How does one mix bike lanes and bus stops? Send the lane behind the bus stop, with enough space for bus riders to comfortably board and get off the bus. What about when bike lanes and turn lanes meet? Give bikes their own exclusive signals, or create “mixing zones,” shared spaces where people in cars and on bikes take turns entering the space…

The publication of the NACTO bikeway guide didn’t directly result in the creation of any new bike lanes. But the planners and engineers who wrote it recognized that for each of them to further progress in their own city, they had to collaborate on standards that would enable progress in any city.

As it turns out, the Urban Bikeway Design Guide was just the beginning. NACTO later released the more comprehensive Urban Street Design Guide, a broader effort to push back against America’s car-first road designs and define streets that support urban life, with narrow lanes that encourage reasonable driving speeds and traffic signals that give people plenty of time to cross the street. More recently, the organization has published guides on designing streets to speed up public transit, and incorporate storm-water infrastructure.

It sounds like the manual was the culmination of collective efforts in multiple cities as well as the form that would be recognized in that particular field (urban planning). But, it hints at larger issues involving social change: it can happen through a variety of materials and people. If I were to teach about social change in an Introduction to Sociology class, we might talk about (1) large-scale social movements or (2) significant shifts in large institutions (like the economy or politics). We acknowledge material changes here and there: think the revolution of the printing press, the arrival of social media or smartphones, the invention of air conditioning, etc. Yet, bureaucratic changes (except national laws) receive little attention even though such shifts can influence many people without even knowing. Take the bike lanes example from above: the average city resident may notice the shift but would probably attribute the change to either local officials or local interest groups (and both would be partly true). But, the manual behind the changes will only be known to experts in that field.

How can a city reduce driving by 45%? Sustained effort over decades

Paris has significantly reduced traffic since 1990 but this was not an easy or quick task. This article suggests sustained effort from the city’s mayors was critical:

  • Jacques Chirac, Paris’ famously conservative (and public fund-embezzling) mayor from 1977 to 1995, helped encourage pedestrianism by increasing the number of bollards to prevent illegal sidewalk parking, Héran writes. Chirac also rehabilitated the Champs-Elysees into a true public promenade, with widened sidewalks, street parking eliminations, and refreshed green spaces.
  • Chirac’s chosen successor, Jean Tibéri, came under fire for not cracking down hard enough on Paris’ air quality problems (and was accused of election fraud!), but he does get credit for banning cars in the Place de la Concorde. In an effort to reduce traffic, he also introduced the city’s first bike plan in 1996, which established paths along the city’s main arteries and lower-speed neighborhood zones, Héran notes.
  • Elected Paris’ first openly gay mayor in 2001, the socialist Bertrand Delanoë “vowed that automobile interests would no longer dominate the city and he would focus on improving public spaces,” wrote Stephane Kirkland for the Project for Public Spaces in 2014. Delanoë made good on those promises during his 13-year tenure (while largely avoiding scandal): A number of streets were reconfigured to accommodate dedicated bus lanes. Some 400 miles of bicycle lanes were created. The banks of the Seine began to close to traffic in the summertime to make way for public “beaches.”And in 2007, the city introduced its bikeshare program, Vélib, now arguably the largest and most used such system in the West.
  • Delanoë’s protégé and current Mayor Anne Hidalgo is an outspoken environmentalist responsible for “some of the most systematically anti-car policies of any major world city,” CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan wrote last year. Hidalgo has implemented a ban on older cars on roads during weekdays, and has pedestrianized the lower quays of the Seine. “Car space is being slashed in many major squares, while car-free days have been introduced annually as a form of publicity campaign for a future without automobiles,” O’Sullivan wrote. (Furthermore, recent trip data from city hall do not support the claim by some motorists that Mayor Hidalgo’s car-free policies have made congestion worse. There’s been a sharp decline in the kilometers-traveled within the city, but only a small dip in kilometers-per-hour.)
  • Paris’ commitment to public transport far surpasses that of any city in the U.S., where it has been more than 30 decades since any new system opened. RATP, the public transport operator for the Île-de-France region, has increased its reach with new bus rapid-transit lines and a steadily growing suburban tram network whose first line opened in the early 1990s. New routes have been accompanied by sidewalk improvements, bike paths, and a variety of traffic calming measures. The lines are frequent and fast. Some are even driven autonomously.

Three quick thoughts regarding this brief history of Paris:

  1. Sustained effort across mayors and local government officials is not easy to do. This article covers 25+ years where different actors from different perspectives contributed to a desirable outcome. The amount of emphasis on reducing traffic probably differed quite a bit across administrations yet the small and big steps added up over time. Significant social change in large cities does not often happen quickly.
  2. The reasons for pursuing less car traffic are varied. Some might decry the environmental issues. Others might want more space for bicycling. More public space might motivate others. I wonder if any of these one reasons would have been enough to motivate these actions and push forward big changes. But, put together multiple reasons and people with different interests might be more likely to come together and promote fewer cars.
  3. How much easier is it to pursue such plans in a European city versus an American city? Additionally, this is Paris, a tourist hot-spot where people want to walk around and experience charming sights and neighborhoods. American cities may also desire less traffic – who wants to be delayed? – yet this is difficult to reconcile with American desires for individual transportation. At the same time, a chart in the article suggests London and Berlin are more like New York City in terms of driving.

How McMansions affect the children who grew up in them

The founder of the Tumblr McMansion Hell was asked about the effect of McMansions on younger generations:

Returning back to our earlier conversation about why your Tumblr seems to especially be popular among young people, it would seem that not only are young people rejecting their parents’ values but they’re also coming of age during a time that has other trends affecting the decline of McMansions. For instance people are choosing to remain in cities rather than move to suburbs, they’re prioritizing the quality of possessions versus the quantity, there’s a focus on minimalism and everyone’s obsessed with Marie Kondo and de-cluttering. What do you think about all of this?

I think that what it really boils down to is the previous generation — the McMansion buyers — [placed an emphasis] on owning and having assets and this [younger] generation is now more interested in having experiences. Having the experience of community by living in the city, having the experience of having a house that’s well-crafted. This is also the first generation that really grew up with the concept of global warming and we have more of an urgency because our lives are going to be impacted by it. For a lot of young people that grew up in the suburbs, once you reached adolescence, there was a quality of life that was really impacted by the isolation of the suburbs and I think that has played a huge role as to why the younger generation is rejecting this notion of ‘the big house’ and this notion of always being in the car.

There are a number of broad assumptions made here on both sides – interviewer and interviewee – and how they may be affected by McMansions. It is still not entirely clear that younger Americans don’t want to own homes in the suburbs or that consumerism has abated. Younger Americans do seem to have less interest in driving – as evidenced by delayed drivers licenses – though McMansions aren’t only located in exurbs. Some of this will take time to sort out as there have also been large scale economic events that have had some effect.

Among those who discuss McMansions, you would be hard pressed to find many who would argue McMansions are good for children. The opinion above is that children who grew up in such homes will react in certain ways to their negative effects. Yet, how many people reject the general values and norms of their parents? Americans often celebrate this ideal – teenagers should have room to explore, adults should be able to make their own choices and be their own person – but there is often more continuity in society than we suspect. Social change can indeed take place across generations but not all of life necessarily changes.

I can see it now: let’s replace the term Millennials with the McMansion generation. While most people didn’t grow up in such homes, it would fit certain narratives…

We are still trying to cope with 19th century social changes

I recently heard a talk from historian Heath Carter regarding his new book Union Made: Working People and the Rise of Social Christianity in Chicago where he drew connections between the Gilded Age and our own current times of inequality. In thinking further about the topic, I was struck by the number of issues that were pertinent then and are still present today. While it is difficult to know exactly when social processes begin and end, here is an incomplete list of concerns from the 1800s that we are still trying to figure out:

-How do we cope with all the people moving from small towns/agricultural areas to big cities?

-How can we have fulfilling lives in an industrialized, mechanized, global, capitalistic economic system? How do we deal with influential corporations as well as the ultra-rich?

-How can welfare states operate effectively with numerous interest groups and big money involved?

-Can science and religion coexist?

-On the whole, does mass culture (through mass media whether newspapers, telegraph, radio, TV, or Internet) help or hinder society?

-Can technological progress solve many of our problems?

-How can society – particularly, nation states – be cohesive and unified given increased levels of heterogeneity and specialization?

-What is the role of the self compared to the shaping and undeniable influence of growing (and often necessary) social institutions?

-What kind of relationship should we have with nature given industrialization and modifications to the environment?

-Under what pretenses and at what costs should major wars and social conflicts be waged?

Put another way, it is little surprise to me that the discipline of sociology emerged when it did: as these large-scale social changes were getting underway, numerous people were interested in explaining the effects. But, these are long-term social processes that may take decades or centuries to play out across a variety of contexts and as they interact with each other.

“Young people today don’t see a car as freedom; they see it as a trap.”

A new book argues driving does not appeal much to millennials and this will have important consequences:

Sam Schwartz, New York City’s Koch-era traffic commissioner, has a simple thesis in his new book, “Street Smart”: “Millennials are the first generation whose parents were more likely to
complain about their cars than get excited about them.

As kids, “millennials were driven through more traffic jams, more often, longer, and farther, than any generation in history.”…

What’s freedom to kids today? A walk, a bike ride or a short car ride — and, more often, a smartphone.

It’s all wonderful, then, that people are changing their behavior — except for the fact that the country needs for people to keep driving ever more miles so that it can fund its highway and transit infrastructure. Remember: Just as not everyone needed to default on his mortgage to cause a housing bust, not everyone needs to take the bus instead of a car to cause a roads bust…

One thing is clear, though: Even if presidential candidates are too afraid to talk about this stuff, they sure shouldn’t run against cities, when the voters are running toward them.

Less driving may just be a symptom of larger changes: living in denser areas (cities and suburbs with entertainment and cultural options within walking or mass transit distance), less public life outside the housing unit even with increased interaction with people through smartphones and the Internet, changing priorities in how to spend money for individuals (why would I pay for a car when spending that money elsewhere – say on experiences or the latest technology – gives me more desirable options?) and the government (it may be very difficult to maintain all those roads), and a declining interest among all Americans to simply drive (with a whole host of economic, political, and social influences here). At the same time, large social changes like these require time to work their way through a large society.

How a growing suburb plans to remain “a small town at heart”

Many growing suburbs claim to still be small towns in spirit. Here is how the mayor of Warrenville makes this argument while explaining a new development:

At the September 21, City Council meeting, nearly unanimous preliminary approval was given to a new development that will occupy a 4.3-acre site adjacent to the Warrenville Library called Settlers Pointe. this moderate dense development will consist of 34 single-family homes, 14 two-story and 20 three-story units, selling in the $350,000 to $450,000 price range. I believe this project will be a wonderful addition to Warrenville on many levels, but there was a time when I would have viewed this development through a different lens, and because of its density, would have been adamantly opposed to it as “not in line with the character of Warrenville”…

In the case of Settlers Pointe, it will be good for Warrenville in many ways. It is an attractive development being done by an accomplished and quality developer (google David Weekley Homes) who knows the market. You have told us that a very high priority is economic development. Essential to that goal is “rooftops”. Businesses will not invest in areas without enough people to support them. these new homes will help spur the redevelopment of our downtown, something else you have given us as a priority…

Rural may no longer be geographically possible for our town, but we have resolved to remain a small town at heart. this is the “character” that you have consistently told us that is most important to you to enhance and preserve. It is independent of housing style or lot size. The people who choose to come to Settlers Pointe in Warrenville will do so because they see who we are and want to be one of us: small town folks enjoying the best of all possible worlds.

This explanation seems to me to be a bit odd given the relatively small size of the development – it is a small site though centrally located – yet the way it is made is similar to pitches I’ve seen in other suburbs in my research. Here are some key elements:

  1. Americans generally like the ideas of small towns. As this earlier post put it, American politicians push small town values in a suburban country. The vast majority of Americans live in urban areas – over 80% – yet they hold to older visions of community life. Appealing to small town ideals is a safe move.
  2. Broader social forces have pushed a community past its old identity and the community can’t go back. Once there is a certain level of growth or enough time has passed, “progress” is happening with or without us. (Of course, there are plenty of communities where they try to freeze things in time. See this example. But, those who support new development often say this can’t be done – and they’re probably right in thinking about the long-term.)
  3. New growth can be good, even as it contributes to change and a newer identity. Economic reasons are typically cited: business growth is good, an expanded tax base is good, new attention from potential new residents is good.
  4. The development under approval is not too different from what already exists. If there is a group fighting the project, they will argue otherwise.
  5. Even with change and growth, it is possible to hold on to the “character” or “spirit” of a small town. Local officials typically refer to the actions of residents and community groups, implying that people still know and care for each other. For example, Naperville leaders suggest their suburb with over 140,000 people still has this spirit.

Of course, these arguments are often challenged by residents who don’t see it the same way. NIMBY responses typically don’t want a community to fundamentally change; the way it is now is why those residents moved into town. But, some change is inevitable so perhaps these arguments are really about the degree of perceived change. Will this “fundamentally” alter the community? Is this a slippery slope? This can be the case with development decisions but significant change tends to come through a chain of decisions and these patterns are easier to diagnose in hindsight. (See Naperville as an example.) Residents can also feel relatively powerless compared to local politicians or businesses who have power to make decisions while local leaders tend to claim they are looking out for the good of the whole community.

Change is not easy in suburbs. And it is often a process that may look different in its physical manifestations even as the elements of the arguments made both for and against development follow some common patterns.