September 11, 2014

Lessons from Ferguson: Class, race and inner-ring suburbs

Demographer Pete Saunders in The Guardian thinks events in the Missouri city mean The death of America’s suburban dream.

America’s “inner-ring” suburbs – the group of small, independent municipalities that surround the largest US cities – are undergoing a remarkable transformation. … The suburbs represented the American ideals of homeownership, education, low crime and complete autonomy. They represented, in other words, insulation from the perceived ills of urban living. Now it is that very insulation, which made them attractive in their early years, that may be sealing their doom. …
This pattern of “white flight” to the suburbs was characteristic of American metro areas until the 1970s and 1980s, when newer suburbs – bigger, more spacious, more contemporary – began stealing residents away from the older inner-ring suburbs.   And by the 1990s, more minorities were beginning to follow the same aspirational path as the former white city dwellers before them. Just as previous generations did, minorities sought larger homes, quieter environments and better schools. And white residents who craved insulation from the perils of urban living now saw it coming to their front lawns – again. …
To understand the implications of white flight and “resegregation”, look no further than the north side of St Louis. It was the primary destination for early black migrants, but quickly became an impoverished, isolated enclave. …
This has been an active decision. As black people move into their suburban idylls, longtime white residents flee to other suburbs, or retreat to the highest value enclaves in town. They take other measures, too.
They limit the expansion of rental housing to restrict affordable housing options. They develop a strong law and order environment. And they do their best to insulate themselves, physically and socially, from minority transition. It works, after a fashion – until something like Ferguson shows the cracks. …
Meanwhile, everyone’s talking about downtown cores: a back-to-the-city movement led by well-educated young adults seeking the vigour and dynamism of urban living. Rapid gentrification – a predominantly white phenomenon – is associated with bold new ideas about city life. “Big data” can create a technology revolution, it is argued. Apps can make cities run with greater efficiency. A more pedestrian-oriented environment is the way to make your neighbourhood attractive. Many of the best of these ideas have been filtering through to the newest suburbs, too.
In the middle sit America’s inner-ring suburbs. They don’t enjoy the same attention. They are rapidly growing more diverse yet more impoverished – and are poorly equipped to handle transition, because adaptation simply wasn’t included in their development fabric. Will the time ever come to address their ills? The home of the American dream is ailing.


Joel Kotkin, argues in The Daily Beast that despite what Ferguson has led many to believe, class matters more than race:

… at the same time that formal racial barriers have been demolished, the class divide continues to grow steeper than in at any time in the nation’s recent history. Today America’s class structure is increasingly ossified, and this affects not only minorities, who are hit disproportionately, but also many whites, who constitute more than 40 percent of the nation’s poor.
Upward mobility has stalled under both Bush and Obama, not only for minorities but for vast swaths of working class and middle class Americans. Increasingly, it’s not the color of one’s skin that determines one’s place in society, but access to education and capital, often the inherited variety.

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The fifth and final section of George Poulos’s essay: Moving Towards the Comprehensive Costs of Transportation in Vancouver
[Part 1 here]   [Part 2 here]   [Part 3 here]   [Part 4 here]


A New Operations-Level Tool for Cost-Benefit Analysis of Transportation Projects


Although the unit rates illustrated in Table 1 (in Part 1) may be used to substantiate several interesting perspectives related to the topical issues in the region today, they can also serve as a ready operational-level tool for planning and engineering applications. As mentioned in the introduction, similar unit costs are already employed in many European countries to conduct cost-benefit analysis of transportation infrastructure programs. To this end, they can be used to monetize changes to travel time, congestion, safety statistics, environmental impacts and a series of other factors resulting from new infrastructure projects.
In the past, these applications have typically centered on evaluating traditional transportation infrastructure projects; anything to do with roads, bridges, tunnels, railways or various transit modes. However, unit costs have recently been put towards evaluating active transportation strategies. A cogent example can be drawn from the Danish city of Odense’s “Cycle City” program, which was a combined cycle infrastructure and promotional campaign. A subsequent analysis of cycling statistics following the implementation of the program revealed some significant results (pdf here):

  • 35 million new cycling trips
  • Mortality between the ages of 15-49 fell 20%
  • Accidents reduced by 20%
  • Half of new cycling trips are ex-motorists
  • 500 more years of life added to the city
  • 33 million DKK saved in health cost
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Scot links to Bloomberg: Ferguson Unrest Shows Poverty Grows Fastest in Suburbs

According to a Brookings Institution report July 31 that found the poor population growing twice as fast in U.S. suburbs as in city centers. …
“We’ve passed this tipping point and there are now more poor people in the suburbs than the cities,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, author of the report and a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington. “In those communities, we see things like poorer health outcomes, failing schools and higher crime rates.”

Combine the economic realities of the above with the trend in the post below, and the transition of the police from protector of community to warrior for containment seems inevitable without major shifts in policy and politics.
Side note: Ferguson is a community of 21,000 in a county with 90 municipalities.  That would be like the West End of Vancouver being two separate cities.


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So says CGP Grey about the impact of automation on employment in “Humans Need Not Apply – a discussion not of the desirability of automation but its inevitability.



NPR’s On the Media explores the same subject here:

People often object to the idea that the minds of machines can ever replicate the minds of humans. But for engineers, the proof is in the processing. Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur Jerry Kaplan (talks) about how the people who make robots view the field of artificial intelligence.

Kaplan demolishes the cliché that “Computers can only do what they are programmed to do.”  And the real nature of the ‘robot threat:’

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  You also sort of hinted that it might be a threat, but I guess you’re talking about to people’s jobs, potentially, not to their actual lives or autonomy. JERRY KAPLAN:  Well, the impacts on the job market are going to be extreme. There’s a study that estimated that 47% of the US working population, that their jobs will, in the next five to ten years, come under potential threat of being completely automated. The people who are building these systems are going to have a unique advantage, in terms of skimming off the increased economic value that they’ll be providing to society. So it’s going to have a significant impact, and already is having a significant impact, on income inequality.
Transcript here. Read more »

From “Amsterdam’s Weird Culture War” in CityLab:

Conservatives insist that Amsterdam is paying too high a price for its anything-goes culture, degenerating into dirt and sleaze. Liberals maintain that there’s an attempt to manufacture a sense of crisis in order to push gentrification, property speculation, and its associated social cleansing.

The focal point for this debate has so far been Project 1012s red light district.  … For opponents, this process is little more than artwashing.

With the fresh batch of creatives all on temporary contracts, the arty tenants are really being used to sanitize the red light district to prepare it for a new breed of wealthier occupant.  For defenders, it’s an essential step in reclaiming part of the historic city for people who the sex industry discourages from visiting.

Heritage, culture, real-estate and sex – all in one disputable package.

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Within steps of the parks, shopping malls, high-end highrises and corporate towers of Diagonal Mar is the barrio of La Mina:



From Barcelona Field Studies Centre

Until the end of the 1960’s, La Mina was little more than an area of cultivated fields, livestock and scattered hamlets just outside the Barcelona city limits. …  Immigrants arrived in the city with minimal resources leading to the growth of some of the largest shanty town constructions in the country.

It was not until 1968 that land was purchased by the Barcelona Council for the construction of low-rent housing in La Mina. … A rapid remodelling of the development plan allowed for a far greater density of development on the remaining land with the construction of 2,100 further apartments, specifically for the ‘chabolistas’ (shanty town dwellers).

Franco approves of La Mina


La Mina Nueva housing projects under construction 


High levels of social deprivation, including very high rates of illiteracy quickly made the area infamous, with newspaper headlines such as ‘La Mina: district without law’ and ‘La Mina: dangerous area’.  This unfortunate legacy left La Mina … with the greatest social deprivation within the Barcelona metropolitan area.

Streetview here


Projects (June 2014)


And given that La Mina was on the periphery, that might have been where it remained on the list of social and political priorities.  Except something very Barcelonan happened.

In the late 1990s the city was looking to develop an economy of culture and communications, and above all to promote the city’s burgeoning tourist industry in the wake of the 1992 Summer Olympics.  It conceived of another major event: the Universal Forum of Cultures to be staged in 2004 on a reclaimed industrial waterfront area at the farthest end of the Diagonal:


World Forum of Cultures, 2004


 Today, all that remains of the controversial project is Big Blue, the Museu Blau de les Ciències Naturals (designed by Herzog & de Meuron, the architects chosen for the Vancouver Art Gallery), plus vast amounts of less than appealing open space (suitable for festivals and skateboarding), plus a beach and a huge solar panel.



But with so much riding on the successful development of Diagonal Mar and the Forum, the problems of La Mina had to be addressed.

Next, what happened.

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Robin Chase asks the question in this Atlantic Cities piece, further to the post below.  In that piece on the Google car, the author notes:

Google is keenly aware what’s at stake. There’s the safety component, with cities recognizing the need to strive for zero traffic fatalities.

The nature of urban mobility itself is also on the line. Larry Burns, a former vice president for research and design at G.M. who’s now a paid Google consultant, says taxi-like fleets of shared autonomous vehicles can become viable business models if they can capture just 10 percent of all city trips. “I think that should be viewed as a new form of public transportation,” he says. Having recently invested in the ride-sharing service Uber, Google no doubt senses that marrying urban travel demand with autonomous vehicles could transform car-ownership as we know it.

How will all this affect the choices of individuals, especially those with limited options as a consequence of their income?

Imagine, for instance, the impact of this technology on insurance rates.  Even if the completely autonomous vehicle is not yet ready for prime time, car companies will initially install the sensors needed to prevent collisions with both other vehicles and people.  That should have a dramatic downward impact on insurance rates – for those who can afford the new vehicles with these initially expensive bells-and-whistles.

For those who can’t, however, what happens to their insurance rates?  Presumably an equally dramatic upward shift.  For many, they will not be able to afford cars with the technology nor the insurance for cars without.

Their choice will be the shared autonomous vehicles that Google sees as a viable business model.  They’d buy a plan similar to a cell phone, structured according to their needs and wallet, purchasing a mobility service, not the hardware.  If it works, if it’s affordable and if it’s pervasive, then reasonably we should anticipate a significant drop in the number of cars required, the space they consume and people’s attachment to the idea of the personal car as a reflection of status and identity.

Transformative indeed.

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As senior governments become increasingly unlikely, unable or oblivious to issues of inequality, local governments are taking up the challenge.   For example: Seattle’s move to a $15 minimum wage, described here.

And today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement of his housing strategy:

Mayor Bill de Blasio took to Brooklyn and the Bronx on Monday to outline an ambitious housing plan that envisions adding density to New York City by encouraging the construction of more residential buildings while ensuring that they include affordable homes for poor and middle-income residents.

Mr. de Blasio said the city would commit $8.2 billion of public money to creating and maintaining affordable units and would work to secure more than $30 billion in private funds. Along with anticipated state and federal money, the projected investment in affordable housing in the city would total $41.1 billion over 10 years, which administration officials said was the largest such effort by a city in the United States.

Continue reading the main story
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