The difficulties for public institutions and spaces after COVID-19

Reopening and repopulating public spaces during and after COVID-19 might provide difficult:

Yet can you reopen a society — particularly a republic built on openness and public interaction — without its physical institutions at full capacity, without public spaces available for congregation?…

Something else unites these places. In each, the woman on the next bench, the man ahead in the checkout line, the family down the pew are suddenly potential vectors — or potential victims. So we’re assessing the public realm in the way we assess a salad bar when we walk into a restaurant…

“Democracy depends to a surprising extent on the availability of physical, public space, even in our allegedly digital world,” John R. Parkinson writes in “Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance.”

“How do you define the ‘public realm’ when an enormous percentage of the American public spends the majority of its day in its pajamas?” Stilgoe says.

This piece raises great questions for a COVID-19 world. The emphasis on how architecture and design shapes public behavior as well as how others in those spaces can be trusted or not is right on. At the same time, there are several elements I would add to this analysis:

1. The definitions of “institution” and “spaces” are pretty broad. Some of the listed locations, like shopping malls, colleges, and grocery stores, are not public spaces. They are owned by private groups that can and do dictate how the space can be used. Some of the other locations, like parks and squares, are public spaces. Government buildings are generally more open to all. Americans privilege private space even though we need some of the private spaces – grocery stores, workplaces – to survive. But, the same rules or expectations do not apply in each of these spaces. We saw this in the Occupy Wall Street protests where gatherings in what looked like public spaces could be ended when they spaces were actually owned by private groups or the government pushed people out. We actually do not have that many public spaces where people regularly gather; many of our “public spaces” are actually privately owned and this matters. The private public spaces require both private groups and the public to cooperate – and they may not always do so.

2. Even before COVID-19, it is not clear that many Americans value public spaces or use them regularly. As noted in #1, Americans like their private spaces. Homes may be less attractive when you are trapped in them but we have a society where success is owning your own suburban single-family home. Add to this declining trust in numerous institutions and it may be hard to make the case that we should put more resources and effort into creating and maintaining public spaces.

3. More broadly, many would argue a thriving society and democracy depends on regular interaction between people. And face-to-face interaction provides benefits that online communication does not regarding communicating clearly and building relationships. Yet, again, this has been on a decline for a while now. Twitter is not a good approximation of public conversation nor a good medium (at least as currently constructed or experienced) for public conversation. Telecommuting may provide efficiencies and allow people more private lives but something will be lost. See my earlier thoughts on sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s Palaces for the People where he takes up these issues (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four).

Linking great trick-or-treat neighborhoods to traditional neighborhood design

Maybe a good trick-or-treat location should be defined less by the available candy and more regarding its design:

Great neighbourhoods for trick-or-treating also tend to be great neighborhoods for families everyday:

  • Tree-lined streets designed for walkers more than speeding cars.
  • Enough density and community completeness, to activate what I call “the power of nearness” – everything you need, nearby.
  • Good visual surveillance through doors and stoops, windows (and I don’t mean windows in garages), porches and “eyes on the street.”
  • Connected, legible streets that let you “read” the neighbourhood easily -grids tend to be good for this, but other patterns work too…

If kids ARE being driven in, that can mean it’s a great neighbourhood from a design perspective (or perhaps just that it’s a more affluent community, with “better candy”) — but having too few local kids can show that there isn’t enough housing diversity, new infill, and family-friendly “infrastructure” to keep kids in the neighbourhood. In fact, in many beautiful, tree-lined neighbourhoods popular on Halloween, the number of local kids may be actually dropping, with resulting pressures on local schools to close. This as household sizes decrease, and new density and “gentle infill” that could stabilize the population and keep kids in the neighbourhood, is often locally resisted.

From this point of view, good neighborhoods promote walkability and ultimately sociability. There are few times of years where this matters as much as Halloween as many Americans do not regularly walk down their streets to visit a number of neighbors at once.

More broadly, the practice of trick-or-treating is closely tied to social trust. Even with no documented cases of poisoned candy, parents want to know that their kids are safe. And with declining social trust in the United States, again, there are limited numbers of opportunities where Americans ritually interact with physical neighbors as opposed to seeking out people they whom they share an identity or interests.

It sounds like there is an empirical question to be answered here: do neighborhoods with (1) more traditional design and (2) higher levels of social trust (which may or more not be related to the neighborhood design experience more satisfying trick-or-treat experiences (measured by numbers of children trick-or-treating, percent of households providing candy, and perceptions of whether the neighborhood is a good place for this)?

How trust builds and then declines through online reviews

Two sociologists explain how trust develops and then changes over time in the online sharing economy:

For their research, Parigi and Cook examined Couchsurfing, a website that supports international travel and cultural exchange. Its members both host visitors and surf the site to find sympathetic lodging as they travel the world, all without exchanging money. Profile pages of members list Couchsurfing friends and other personal information.

The findings revealed, the researchers wrote, an interesting mechanism at the root of interpersonal trust: “The accumulation of ratings about users (whether guests or hosts) had a double-edged effect on trust and relationships: it made relationships easier to establish initially but it also weakened them after a certain threshold.”

In other words, technology boosted interpersonal trust among users at first, but it also made it more difficult to build stronger ties as users acquired more and more reviews…

Parigi and Cook explain that in an online community, interactions between people are more normalized, less open to chance. “This is because trustworthiness is promoted not by interpersonal ties, but by the monitoring of one another in a network in which reputations are posted,” they wrote…
As a result, he said, an interesting conundrum seems to be emerging: technology makes it possible for people to trust complete strangers, while at the same time it may be weakening the bonds that unite individuals.

Trust is a necessary component of human relationships; people need to have some confidence that the other person is not going to take advantage of them or let them down and deeper connections can form when mutual trust develops. Yet, trust can develop in different ways. In this particular case, it sounds like the trust is built on crowd-sourced data – posted online reviews – that contribute to confidence but don’t necessarily lead to deeper relationships.

Maybe this is all okay. We don’t expect to form deep relationships with everyone we interact with, particularly when it comes to economic transactions. (Think of interactions with cashiers or waiters or others at the lower status jobs in the service economy.) The larger issue may be when most or all of online interactions develop these qualities. This is the same sort of question that worried Georg Simmel in his piece “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel made a similar argument: when humans enter a new social space (the big city) that is built around interdependence and specialization, humans can’t hope to get to know everyone. Similar situation today: humans enter a new social space (the Internet, social media) that prioritizes individual action and choosing what connections to make.

Airbnb turning cities into villages?

The CEO of Airbnb argues his company is reversing the effects of urbanization:

“Cities used to be generally villages, and everyone was essentially kind of like an entrepreneur,” he said at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “You were either a farmer, or you worked in the city as a blacksmith, or you had some kind of trade. And then the Industrial Revolution happened.” World War II followed, and “suddenly cities became more and more mass-produced. And we stopped trusting our neighbors.”…

“At the most macro level, I think we’re going to go back to the village, and cities will become communities again,” he added. “I’m not saying they’re not communities now, but I think that we’ll have this real sensibility and everything will be small. You’re not going to have big chain restaurants. We’re starting to see farmers’ markets, and small restaurants, and food trucks. But pretty soon, restaurants will be in people’s living rooms.”…

Chesky hopes these transformations will make us question the strange way we parcel out trust. “You trust people more than you trust anything in life—if you know them,” he noted. “You’ll trust your mother, your sister, your daughter, you’ll trust your friends. You’ll trust them more than big governments, big corporations. But a stranger—you’ll trust less than anybody.” Chesky’s question: Why?…

What I find most interesting, though, is that Chesky sees village-like networks sprouting in cities at a time when urbanization is also going in the polar opposite direction. More than half of the world currently lives in cities, and the United Nations predicts that two-thirds of the global population will be urban-dwellers by 2050. In 2011, there were 23 “megacities” of at least 10 million people around the world. By 2050, there will be 37. It’s possible that as cities balloon to overwhelming sizes, we’re coping by carving out smaller communities. But it’s also possible that the phenomenon Chesky is describing is primarily playing out in Western countries. After all, Asia, where Airbnb has a relatively small presence, will account for most new megacities in the coming decades.

I can’t decide whether this is a blatant case of boosterism for his product or some naive thinking about countering the mass process of urbanization. This line of thinking about the differences between villages and cities motivated numerous early sociological thinkers: Marx focused on the effects of industrialization in cities, Durkheim looked at mechanic and organic solidarity as well as the increasingly specialized division of labor, Weber emphasized bureaucracy and rationalization in modern society, and Simmel worried about the effects on individuals. They all saw a big shift taking place and we’re still experiencing the process as well as its effects today.

Yet, haven’t cities always contained some village-like features? Think of the romantic notions about neighborhoods, whether emphasized in a place like Chicago with its 77 community areas or Jane Jacobs’ celebration of Greenwich Village-type places. These smaller units allow residents to know some people closely and to participate in local life. Airbnb might do some of this by erasing some of these traditional geographic boundaries and allowing people to connect. But, it doesn’t necessarily lead to long-term interactions that build up community life.

All together, urbanization is a process with profound effects on everyone. Even suburbanites who think they have escaped urban ills are intimately tied to urbanization through their residence in metropolitan regions.

Why Chicago suburbs are facing more FOIA requests

The Daily Herald reports that a number of Chicago suburbs have seen an uptick in Freedom of Information Act requests in recent years:

A Daily Herald survey of 55 municipalities showed that the number of Freedom of Information Act requests received has increased in nearly all towns over the past few years that officials have been tracking the numbers. Between 2011 and 2013, 17 suburbs saw an increase of more than 25 percent. Towns including Aurora, Hampshire, Des Plaines and Prospect Heights saw the number of requests increase by more than 50 percent.

Municipal clerks and lawyers said that responding to these requests takes staff time and money away from other responsibilities to the point of being a burden, but First Amendment experts say it is worth the cost to increase transparency of government.

The requests aren’t all coming from investigative journalists looking to expose corruption, but mostly from regular citizens looking for police reports and information about their homes or their neighbors.

There are several reasons thrown out for the increase in requests: a change in the law in 2010, people seeking more information, businesses looking for background information for their proposals and developments, occasionally a personal vendetta.

I wonder if there aren’t three broader trends that are also contributing:

1. The Internet makes all sorts of information available. And yet, government doings are either hard to track down or obscured. When the rest of the world is opening up its data, is the government keeping up? (At the same time, I’ve heard local government officials suggest the public has more ways than ever to find out things including watching meetings and reading minutes online.)

2. Trust in institutions, such as local government, has been on the decline for several decades. People want to know what local government is doing because they don’t necessarily trust them to act in their interests.

3. With an economic downturn, people are more interested in knowing where their taxes are going. This is particularly true at the local level when many suburbanites want the paradox of higher property values (meaning their investment in housing pays off) but with lower property taxes and better local services. This also leads to a mentality that local government works for the people and should have no problem processing FOIA requests.

Given the time it can take to track down these requests, I’m sure this is something local governments are keeping their eyes on.

 

Claim: Airbnb and Lyft increasing social trust amongst Americans

Social trust in the United States may be declining but one writer argues two new services are providing space where Americans can start trusting a little more:

The sharing economy has come on so quickly and powerfully that regulators and economists are still grappling to understand its impact. But one consequence is already clear: Many of these companies have us engaging in behaviors that would have seemed unthinkably foolhardy as recently as five years ago. We are hopping into strangers’ cars (Lyft, Sidecar, Uber), welcoming them into our spare rooms (Airbnb), dropping our dogs off at their houses (DogVacay, Rover), and eating food in their dining rooms (Feastly). We are letting them rent our cars (RelayRides, Getaround), our boats (Boatbound), our houses (HomeAway), and our power tools (Zilok). We are entrusting complete strangers with our most valuable possessions, our personal experiences—and our very lives. In the process, we are entering a new era of Internet-enabled intimacy.

This is not just an economic breakthrough. It is a cultural one, enabled by a sophisticated series of mechanisms, algorithms, and finely calibrated systems of rewards and punishments. It’s a radical next step for the ­person-to-person marketplace pioneered by eBay: a set of digi­tal tools that enable and encourage us to trust our fellow human beings…

That’s the carrot side of a more intimate economy, the idea that treating people well will result in a better experience. There is a stick side as well: Act badly and you’ll be barred from participat­ing. Nick Grossman, a general manager at Union Square Ventures and a visiting scholar at the MIT Media Lab, says that while Uber drivers are generally positive about the service, he has spoken with some who worry about picking up a ­couple of bad reviews, falling below the acceptable rating threshold, and getting fired. (The same holds for passengers: Manit, the Lyft driver, says she won’t pick up anyone with less than a 4.3-star rating.) “There’s a legitimate question: How do we feel about living in an environment of hyper-accountability?” Grossman asks. “It’s very effective at producing certain outcomes. It’s also very Darwinian.” Just like resi­dents of pre-industrial America, sharing-economy participants know that every transaction contributes to a reputation that will follow them, potentially for the rest of their lives.

Two things seem critical to increasing social trust in these systems:

1. The willingness of enough Americans to trust technology to solve problems and be willing to serve as early adopters who work the kinks out of this system. As the article notes, some users have been burned. But, this then gives each service a chance to respond and get it right in the future.

2. These services provide enough guidelines to help people feel safe. This is quite different from stories in recent years about sharing within a neighborhood or a barter system. Those rely on face-to-face interaction, often with people with whom one could expect to have future interactions. These services provide mediated interaction that leads to some face-to-face interaction. The long-term effects of mediated interaction (this is also what social media tends to offer) might be quite different.