A blog about our common life

They shall neither hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain--ISAIAH 11:9a

I am a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Jew.--MOHANDAS K. GANDHI

And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets--ZECHARIAH 8:5

NOTE: The perspectives herein are solely the author's, and not those of Coe College, or any other organization of which he is a member.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Paying attention to the suburban development behind the curtain

Source: Business Insider
As the presidential candidates confront each other in the first so-called debate of 2016, Cedar Rapids and other towns along the Cedar River worry about flooding, and the country ponders gun violence in Houston and Seattle as well as two more police shootings in Charlotte and Tulsa.

My first-year class on The Future of the City is reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zybek and Jeff Speck (North Point, 2010). For many of them it's their first exposure to critical appraisals of the suburban model of development. One of my first-year students, Dominic Parker from St. Louis, asked why, if suburban sprawl "is as big of a problem as it seems, then why am I just (now) hearing an uproar about it?" I first said it was partly because people tend to see the suburban model of development as part of the natural order of things, as opposed to (what it is in reality) a created situation.

More importantly, the suburban model of development is an important component, though certainly not the sole cause, of problems on which we do focus. The two worst floods in Cedar Rapids history have been 2008 and 2016; this "new normal" is exacerbated by climate change and loss of open land, to both of which the suburban development pattern is a major contributor. Analysis of police shootings tend to put primary responsibility either on the police (for being racist or overreacting to tense situations) or on the victims (for being disorderly and dangerous punks). Without denying individual responsibility, why are there high crime areas, isolated from economic opportunity, into which police are repeatedly thrust, thereby exacerbating the probability of violent confrontation?

It's jarring to hear the candidates debate at the same time that the river is bearing down on Cedar Rapids. The grass-roots efforts by hundreds of Cedar Rapidians this past weekend to protect their fellow citizens' homes and businesses speak to the best potential of our common life. The candidates just don't. Clinton is no visionary, and has a fondness for national programs that will at best nibble at the edges of problems; though the few moments in the debate where the public had a chance to be illuminated were hers. I wish she had more answers like hers on urban crime and fewer attempts to match Trump as an insult comic. Trump, whose campaign has been a toxic stew of racial innuendo, vacuous comments and personal insults, has nothing to recommend himself to anyone who cares about our common life.

Can any good come out of this dispiriting election campaign? Will it cause Americans at last to take a long look at our ongoing political divisions? And if they do, will the answer be to retreat to a private life? Or will we look around and see the potential for our neighbors--all of them, white and black and Latino, Christian and Jewish and Muslim and nones--to deal with our problems at the local level?

SOURCES
Cindy Hadish, "'In God's Hands:' Czech Village, New Bohemia Prepare for 2016 Flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa," Homegrown Iowan, 25 September 2016, http://homegrowniowan.com/in-gods-hands-czech-village-new-bohemia-prepare-for-2016-flood/
Ben Kaplan, "Photos from New Bohemia Prep,"Corridor Urbanism, 25 September 2016, https://medium.com/corridor-urbanism/photos-from-new-bohemia-flood-prep-3acc4d660d4e?source=latest
Charles Marohn, "It's Time to End the Routine Traffic Stop," Strong Towns, 25 July 2016, http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/7/24/the-routine-traffic-stop
Bruce Nesmith, "Gleanings from the New Urbanism," Holy Mountain, 19 April 2013, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2013/04/gleanings-from-new-urbanism.html

Monday, September 5, 2016

Let's hear it for Cedar Rapids


A great city has places to go and ways to get there, and Cedar Rapids celebrated both this Labor Day weekend. One of the city's most treasured places threw a party for itself Thursday afternoon as CSPS dedicated its courtyard. All that was missing were the bricks recognizing donors, which will be installed near the current entrance at a later time.
F. John Herbert, co-director of Legion Arts, which now owns CSPS, noted that this is not only the 125th anniversary of the building begun by the Czech and Slovak Protective Society, it is the 25th anniversary of Legion Arts, which has brought a variety of music, art, theater and dance artists to New Bohemia. The building re-opened in 2011 after the flood and subsequent renovations, with "more to come" promised (although in conversation afterwards he admitted to being tired of renovating). The courtyard, along with the public parking lot between the building and 2nd Street, "complete the CSPS campus," he said.

John recognized the contributions of many people to this milestone in the building's story, including volunteers from CSA, the successor organization to the Czech and Slovak Protective Society, who were outfitted in natty blue shirts.
Cedar Rapids mayor Ron Corbett was recognized for the city's contributions. He in turn said many people through the years have kept the New Bohemia neighborhood "vital," including John Herbert and his Legion Arts partner Mel Andringa, who "never threw in the towel" and "always believed in this neighborhood."

Jack Evans, head of the philanthropic Hall-Perrine Foundation, praised Legion Arts and CSPS for "uniquely contributing to the quality of life in Cedar Rapids." He called Mel and John "entrepreneurs in the arts" just as the foundation's original benefactor, Howard Hall, was an entrepreneur in industry.

Finally, Tom Torluemke, who designed the mural which anchors the courtyard, "Current: The Pulse of Life," talked about the mural's design and meanings.
Your humble blogger stands before the mural "Current: The Pulse of Life"
The fire house next door, which will serve as a studio for visiting artists...
...was open with various memorabilia from CSPS's life on display. This cozy-looking arrangement...
...was installed by local artist Jane Gilmor.

The celebration continued all afternoon with music and an opening reception for visiting artist Blair Gauntt.


Monday was about celebrating ways to get to places, with the annual Mayors' Bike Ride put on by the Linn County Trails Association. Weather was sunny and summery, and a large crowd gathered (365 according to the Gazette story).

State Representative Art Staed was the first elected official spotted:

We did the traditional 8-mile route, through downtown and up to Cedar Lake and back. Riders saw infrastructure old...
Trail between 1st St NW and the Cedar River
...and new...
Protected bike lane into downtown on 3rd Avenue Bridge
...as well as signs that may be helpful.
Past the end of the bike lane on 3rd Avenue SE
It is increasingly possible to ride safely to many places around town, such as historic and multi-use Ellis Park:
This picture shows swimming pool, playground and picnic area...
there are also hiking trails, a golf course and a Shakespeare garden
You can even ride to church! Looks like First Lutheran is expecting you:

At the LCTA booth, riders could score coffee and snacks and study the metro area's future plans for commuter routes in town...
Marion Master Trails Plan
...and recreational trails:
CVNT improvements entering Center Point
Bit by bit, bicycling and walking are becoming more common around town. Provisions for bicycles and pedestrians help by making people feel safer, and encouraging more people to try it. What the best types of infrastructure are, and where they're most appropriate, are subjects for another day. Today let's celebrate what they do to bring people together, take people to where the action is, and make a stronger city.

SEE ALSO: James Q. Lynch, "Mayors' Bike Ride a Chance for 'Happy' Bike Policy Input," http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/local/mayors-bike-ride-a-chance-for-happy-bike-policy-input-20160905
B.A. Morelli, "After Sidewalks Installed, Some Cedar Rapids Critics Admit They Are Better Off," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 4 September 2016, http://www.thegazette.com/subject/news/government/local/after-sidewalks-installed-some-cedar-rapids-critics-admit-they-are-better-off-20160904

EARLIER LABOR DAY POSTS
"Labor Day Weekend," 7 September 2015
"Indulging in Urban Fantasy," 6 September 2014
"Mayors' Bike Ride," 3 September 2013

Monday, August 29, 2016

Linn County's first bicycle boulevard

Sign as you enter Geode Street going north from Boyson Road
Bicycle boulevards are a new form of biking infrastructure, intended to improve connectivity for cyclists by designing streets in ways that discourage through automobile traffic. The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) defines bicycle boulevards as:
streets with low motorized traffic volumes and speeds, designated and designed to give bicycle travel priority. Bicycle boulevards use signs, pavement markings, and speed and volume management measures to discourage through trips by motor vehicles and create safe, convenient bicycle crossings of busy arterial streets (NACTO 2012).
NACTO's 2012 guide lists 16 American cities with bicycle boulevards, with seven more in planning stages. More have certainly joined the group since then. Bicycle boulevards come with a variety of design elements, including (1) signs and pavement markings, for visibility and publicity; (2) speed management to keep average auto speed below 25 mph (<20 mph is better); (3) volume management to keep average daily load below 3000 (<1500 is better); (4) facilitating bike travel through minor street crossings; (5) assisting bike travel through major street crossings; and (6) offset treatments at intersections to make clear where the route changes.

Two Streetfilms videos present the heroic possibilities of bicycle boulevards. "Berkeley's Bike Boulevards" (2007, 8:51) describes the concept as illustrated by the California city's network of routes that parallel major auto thoroughfares--"a system of bicycle-priority streets," says the planner for Bay Area Rapid Transit. There are pinch points in the network where bicycles can go forward while cars must divert left or right. "Portland's Bike Boulevards Become Neighborhood Greenways"(2010, 6:55) describe that city's extensive use of traffic calming treatments to facilitate a strong network of boulevards, including speed bumps, traffic barriers, and changing the orientation of stop signs. "A slower, more trail-like speed" for all vehicles, including motor vehicles going 20 mph or less, says Greg Raisman of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, "will increase the comfort and safety of pedestrians."

The first street in Linn County designated as a bicycle boulevard is in Marion, known as 3rd Street north of 29th Avenue and Geode Street south of it. It's in a residential subdivision, so mainly serves as a connector between Tower Terrace Road...
Tower Terrace Road looking west from 3rd Street
...and Boyson Road, both major auto thoroughfares with wide sidewalks for ped-bike infrastructure.

3rd/Geode is marked with signs (see above) and street markings...
Pavement marking as you enter 3rd Street going south from Tower Terrace Road
...but in no other way differs from a sharrow. There are no traffic calming devices or pedestrian treatments typical of bicycle boulevards elsewhere, even where the street crosses busy 29th Avenue (ADT=5700) by Novak Elementary School.
Novak School, seen across the intersection of 3rd/Geode and 29th Avenue
Note there's not even a crosswalk by the school.

Another thing the bicycle boulevard lacked was way-finding signs. Gill Park is two blocks to the west; it should have a sign on 3rd at Broderick. Continuing south on Geode Street across Boyson, it's a winding but short route to Donnelly Park and the Boyson (formerly Marion Parks) Trail, an established route that crosses the town. Those could have used a sign, too.

Do auto drivers on 3rd/Geode know that it is a bicycle boulevard? There were only two motor vehicles going in our direction as we rode; both drivers seemed glad to get around us, and neither slowed down. I should have, for science, ridden mid-lane to see what would happen, but I lack the nerve. We were the only bike riders on the street when we rode, on a pleasant sunny Sunday afternoon.

The core goal of bicycle boulevards is to create a cycle-friendly network of streets around town, and indeed there are other bicycle boulevards planned in more central parts of Marion, including a 2.37 mile-long north-south route as well as 3rd and Grand Avenues going east-west. (See pages 61 and 67 of their master trails plan, cited below. Updates since 2014 are shown here.) I wonder if those designs will be any more ambitious?

Marion's first bicycle boulevard is a very small "first phase" step, amounting to a way of communicating that if you want to get from Boyson to Tower Terrace, this is the one side street in the subdivision that will go all the way through. How will the treatment of this street affect expectations for, support for, and tolerance of future treatments? Because how the network develops will determine how meaningful the "bicycle boulevard" designation becomes.
Garden design adjacent to Gill Park. I took this before I saw the whole yard,
which deserves a photo essay of its own
SOURCES
Marion Master Trails Plan (2014)
National Association of City Transportation Officials, Urban Bikeway Design Guide (Island, 2nd ed, 2012)

Monday, August 15, 2016

Is our children learning?

Anxiety about the quality of American schools has since the 1980s been driven at least in part by American students' mediocre performance on international tests. In the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), American 15 year olds finished 17th among 34 OECD nations in reading, 20th in science and 27th in math, which a frustrated U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called "a picture of educational stagnation" (Simon, cited below). Younger students did somewhat better in the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), with 4th graders finishing 11th among 57 countries in math and 7th in science, and 8th graders finishing 9th in math and 10th in science. In the same year, American 4th graders finished 6th among 53 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). (Results from 2015 TIMSS and PIRLS will be available this November.) If maintaining America's favorable position in an increasingly competitive, global economy depends on how well-prepared young people are as they enter the work force, these are not good signs, though some might be taken as at least OK.
Johnson STEAM Academy, Cedar Rapids, IA
Lowest test scores in the metro area
82.2 percent of students eligible for free lunch
(photo by author)
Viewing American students as a homogeneous group with mediocre levels of achievement produces, however, a misleading picture of American education. (There are also serious questions about the validity of the test results as statistical indicators, which reservations I share but which I am for the sake of the present discussion going to ignore.) To take just one dimension of diversity, the socio-economic status of the student body, students from low-poverty schools had average PISA scores similar to the top countries in all three categories, while students from low-poverty schools averaged scores that would have put them near the bottom of the OECD (Simon 2013; see also Shultis 2012). Geography matters, too: Several states score consistently much higher than the U.S. national average across-the-board on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores: Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Jersey. Wisconsin, Indiana and Virginia are close behind them. Whatever's going on there is clearly different in a good way than in the states that score much lower than the national average: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico. How is it then useful to treat the "crisis" as uniform nationwide?
Westfield Elementary School, Robins IA
Highest test scores in the metro area
6.0 percent of students eligible for free lunch
(photo from school website)
In the Cedar Rapids metropolitan area test scores at the individual school level vary according to the poverty of the student body. Here are the global ratings from greatschools.org and the percentage of students at each public school whose family income qualifies them for free lunch:


0-10 %
11-20 %
21-30 %
31-40 %
41-50 %
51-60 %
61-70 %
71-80 %
81-90 %
10
es








9
es
HS
es es es







8

HS







7

es es
es






6

MS
HS MS MS IS es es es
 HS es





5

HS
es es
MS es es es
es
es



4


IS es
es
es
es



3



MS
MS




2


Es

HS
Es es
es es es
es


1





MS
MS es

es

Of the 11 schools with 20 percent or less of their students qualifying for free lunch, all but two score at least 7. Of the seven schools with more than 60 percent qualifying, all score 1 or 2. (There are also some inter-district effects that are hard to explain without further investigation. And I can no longer find SES data for private schools in Iowa. About ten years ago, I did a similar examination of public and private elementary schools that showed (a) private elementary schools had very low rates of free-and-reduced lunch students, and (b) their tests scores were comparable to, not better than, public schools with very low rates of free-and-reduced lunch students. And now it seems this handy metric is going to be lost even for public school comparisions.)

To be sure, as reporter Stephanie Simon notes, "poverty alone does not explain the lagging results in the U.S. Vietnam is a poor nation, yet it outscored the U.S. significantly in math and science." The problem is the nature of poverty in America, a rich country with areas of concentrated poverty particularly in central cities that are isolated from the mainstream economy, cut off from avenues to economic opportunity (Chetty et al. 2014, 2016). In many places this reality is enforced by zoning restrictions that keep the poor out of and away from economically-successful areas, including the schools (Rothwell 2012). Being poor anywhere is difficult, but being poor in America presents a particular set of challenges that are reflected in educational performance.

It should be clear by now that efforts to improve American educational outcomes need to address the subgroups with distinctively low performance: children from poor families living in areas of concentrated poverty. Most analysts' approaches focus either on individuals or society.

The predominant individual approach is some form of school choice, which at least means the ability to choose among public schools within or across school districts. The ability to form charter schools, as well as government vouchers that can be applied to private school tuition, further increase the range of choices. The core assumption--that school performance is driven largely by the talent and effort of the staff, and that market-style competition would spur higher quality and more innovation--seems to me flawed. If the school staff were the causal variable, we'd see performance vary more randomly across the map rather than being so easily predictable by local SES.

Nevertheless there are some reasons to think seriously about school choice: Giving people choices might increase their feelings of personal efficacy as well as responsibility for outcomes; it reminds school staff, to the extent they need reminding, that they are accountable for student learning; it might be a short-term way to start getting the improved social mobility that Chetty et al. argue would come from physical mobility; and it would be a way to reassure new middle-class residents that they could seek the best education possible for their children (Duany et al. 2010: 172, though n.b. their preferred solution is a consolidated regional school district: "Only if city schools are able to share the resources of those in the wealthier suburbs can large numbers of parents be convinced to locate their families downtown").

Efforts to improve racial integration attack the performance problem at a more societal level. Gary Orfield and colleagues (2016) argue from numerous studies that racial as well as economic segregation continues to be linked to inferior economic opportunity, and question the lack of policy "initiatives to mitigate spreading and deepening segregation in our nation's schools." Other societal approaches include improving teacher recruitment and training, essentializing the curriculum ( like "Common Core") and increasing spending on education. (For a list of plausible education policy questions for presidential candidates, see Hansen 2016.) Each of these societal approaches, though, takes the distribution of resources and opportunities in American society as givens and tries to do the best they can with them.

I realize the potential for a mixed message here, and I would not for a moment suggest that either the staff of high-poverty schools or low-income parents should ever give up striving to be the best they can be. There is a lot that individuals and schools can do to make things better (Gran 2016). But as a community, as a country, we have to confront how much poverty, particularly concentrated poverty, affects academic performance. Nothing, really, short of a frontal assault on inequality of opportunity will do.

EARLIER POST: "Starting a Conversation about Education," 16 August 2015, http://brucefnesmith.blogspot.com/2015/08/starting-conversation-about-education.html

SOURCES
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point Press, 10th anniversary ed., 2010)
Michael Hansen, "What We Need to Know from Candidates on Education Policy," Brookings, 9 August 2016
Gary Orfield, Jongyeon Ee, Erica Frankenberg and Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, "Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State," The Civil Rights Project, 16 May 2016
"PISA 2012 Results," http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/pisa-2012-results.htm
Jonathan Rothwell, "Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools," Brookings, 19 April 2012
Steven Shultis, "It's the Schools, Stupid (Part I)," Rational Urbanism, 22 September 2012
Stephanie Simon, "PISA Results: 'Educational Stagnation,'" Politico, 3 December 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/12/education-international-test-results-100575
"TIMSS 2011 Results," http://nces.ed.gov/timss/results11.asp

SEE ALSO: Elizabeth Kneebone, "The Growth and Spread of Concentrated Poverty," Brookings, 31 July 2014, https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/the-growth-and-spread-of-concentrated-poverty-2000-to-2008-2012/#/M10420 

Monday, August 8, 2016

Taleb talks parking

Are there "antifragile" ways to develop this city-owned property?
My friend and fellow Corridor Urbanist Ben Kaplan has just written about ongoing downtown development in our town, specifically the question of how to plan parking capacity when great changes in cars may be just a few years in the offing. Ben notes the winning developer's proposal for a city owned lot on 3rd Avenue and 1st Street includes a 744 space parking garage; the other two finalists included garages with 365 and 552 spaces, respectively. "But what if," asks Ben, "we're on the cusp of a world where we rarely, if ever, park our cars ourselves?"

"Basically, by 2030," he goes on, "it's reasonable to assume that most of the cars on the road will have some level of automation. What does a world where most cars can drive [and park] themselves look like?" Well, for one thing, all those garages and parking lots would still have all the negatives identified by the prophet Donald Shoup (chunks of unproductive and unattractive space, missing teeth on the street, generally killing the urban buzz) with none of the positives (individual convenience, sends a message that people from away are welcome).

Meanwhile, the Strong Towns Book Club, in its discussion of book 3 in philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb's provocative Antifragile (Random House, 2012), asks: How would a local government use the barbell strategy (embracing both extreme risk aversion on one side and extreme risk taking on the other while shunning everything in the middle)? As applied to the parking dilemma, how does a city struggle to balance the expectations of drivers with the needs of productive places and the people who use them, when fast-paced technological change may soon upend the basic realities on which such assessments are built?

Taleb in book 3 builds on his concept of antifragility, the idea that success means more than riding out the bad stuff (mere "robustness" or "resilience"); it should mean becoming stronger from adversity. He introduces us in chapter 9 to two lovable characters, each of whom stands for an important aspect of the antifragile life. "Fat Tony" DiBenedetto has a strong antipathy toward "the empty suit" (p. 145) and "believed that nerds, administrators, and, mostly, bankers were the ultimate suckers" (p. 147) because they master the details that are essentially superfluous while missing the big important things. The restlessly curious Nero Tulip recognizes some stuff doesn't make sense even when intellectuals purport to explain it, and so "a system built on illusions of understanding probability is bound to collapse" (p. 147). Both men made money from the financial collapse of 2008 because they recognized the pretense behind all the smart people saying they had things under control, so they had made investments that bet against the smart people's predictions.

Fat Tony and Nero teach us that we, individually or collectively, don't know as much as we think we do, and so life choices and public policies that assume much knowledge of the future are attended by great downside risks when the inevitable unexpected events develop. The antifragile path, we learn in chapter 11, is rather to let go of detailed predictions based on statistical metrics (which with their false precision are "just air" [p.150]) and focus on avoiding the major downside risks that could lead to collapse. This frees the individual to take occasional flyers on high risk activities that have the potential for major payoffs. Uniformly medium risk still carries the chance of complete failure, so go for "a dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle"--the barbell metaphor--"somehow they all result in favorable asymmetries" (p. 162).

So how do we "barbell" our downtowns? The presence of autonomous cars on the time horizon can in this sense be a blessing to city officials and business leaders, because it frees all of us from any idea how this is going to play out, like knowing how many parking spaces we're going to need. Let go, say Fat Tony and Nero, of the models showing how downtown is going to develop in the next 15-30 years, because they're all surely wrong in some important way or other. Focus instead on the worst that can happen--what would constitute catastrophic failure?--and avoid that outcome(s).

For cities catastrophic failure would either be financial insolvency or being saddled a large amount of useless space, which are probably correlative anyway. In the specific case of Cedar Rapids we could add massive property damage from another flood on the scale of 2008. So you don't want to invest so much in infrastructure that you can't afford to maintain, and you don't want to take a form that can't adapt to changing circumstances and fashions. I think that if we develop with too little parking (stop laughing! and follow my argument here), such a mistake would not be catastrophic; things would work themselves out because the rising value of parking space would impel some developer to invest in creating more of it. If instead we choose too much parking, that has great downside risk: it winds up being expensive to someone, which ultimately means the municipality once the businesses fail or flee. An excess of space devoted to parking means vast emptinesses at street level, which severely handicaps the area's ability to attract residents, businesses and visitors.

In positing near-term major change in people's behavior, Ben complicates the scenario by asking what happens if we miraculously get the parking right for 2016 but in 15 years it turns out to be way too much? That would lead to failure if all that parking can't be inexpensively converted to some more productive use. So just as we should construct buildings that can be converted to a succession of uses--this...

not this...
...we should design at least some of those parking facilities for flexible use, too. Could, for example, a parking garage with excess capacity be made to shrink from the outside in, so there could be shops on the street side? Approaching it like that seems to me to be the city's essential interest, while we leave the details up to the market.

SEE ALSO:
Ben Adler, "Cities Finally Realize They Don't Need to Require So Much Damn Parking," Grist, 2 August 2016
Ben Kaplan, "What Happens After Autonomous Cars?Corridor Urbanism, 4 August 2016

EARLIER PERTINENT POSTS:
"Can Regional Planning be Antifragile?" 31 May 2016
"Downtown vs. Parking," 29 September 2013"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013

Monday, August 1, 2016

Crime and our common life

Source: nationalreview.com
Don't you know the crime rate's going up! up! up! up! up!
--"SHATTERED," The Rolling Stones (1978)

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump is asserting a dark, dystopian portrayal of America in 2016 as overwhelmed by predatory criminals and terrorists, in spite of data that show the national violent crime rate has steadily fallen for 25 years. This sharp and sustained turn in the crime rate has created space for the rejuvenation of American central cities, many of which have seen population increases above the national average for a decade or more. For those of us who lived through the three decades before 1990, during which the violent crime rate had steadily risen, the new era has come as something of a miracle, one scarcely-to-be-believed (which may be why many people don't believe it).

Trend in U.S. violent crime, from newgeography.com
According to the Uniform Crime Reports produced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, the national violent crime rate in 1970 was 363.5 per 100,000 population. In 1990, it was 731.8, slightly more than double the 1970 rate. Ten years later, it had fallen nearly a third, to 506.5, at the time the lowest since 1978; and in 2014, the last year for which a report has been produced, it was back to 375.7, roughly back to the 1970 level. A preliminary report for the first half of 2015 shows a 1.7 percent increase in violent crime over the same period in 2014--probably statistically significant, but hardly a reversal of the post-1991 trend (Comey 2016). Criminologist James Alan Fox told PolitiFact: "There are some spikes in homicide and shootings in certain cities, yet other cities continue to experience low rates. As a nation, we are far better off than anytime for the past several decades. Crime rates are low, and there is no consistent and reliable indication that things are getting worse" (Jacobson 2016a).

While this scenario played out over much of the country, it has not been playing out uniformly in all areas. Nearly all states experienced the rough doubling of violent crime (2.013x) from 1970-1990. However, Michigan (1.37 times their 1970 rate), Virginia (1.16x) and West Virginia (1.37x) had much lower increases, while the District of Columbia saw its already sky-high rate hold nearly steady (1.10x). On the other hand, a number of states saw much higher rates of increase during this period, including Iowa (3.77x), Massachusetts (3.63x), South Carolina (3.41x), Connecticut (3.25x) and Wisconsin (3.09x).

There is more divergence among states' experiences after 1990. In the chart below, Iowa's violent crime is always lower than that of Illinois, but increased faster before 1990 and its decline thereafter was slight. Iowa never exceeded half of Illinois' rate before 2003, after which it always did. (Source: F.B.I. Uniform Crime Reports, aggregated at disastercenter.com)

STATE  1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985
Illinois    468    477   508   556   627   670   626   631   677   744   808   793   774   728   725   715 
Iowa         79      99     87   102   121   141   133   144   161   181   200   204   173   181   199   212

STATE 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001
Illinois   800   796   810   846   967   1039  977   960   961   996   886   861   808   690   657   886
Iowa      235   231   257   266   300     303  278   326   315   354   273   310   312   280   266   268

STATE 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Illinois   602   556   546   552   542   533   528   497   445   424   416   403   370
Iowa      286   278   288   293   284   295   289   282   269   257   266   273   274

Nationally, violent crime in 2014 was 51.3 percent of the 1990 rate. New York and California, notably, had 2014 rates less than 40 percent of 1990 crime. Seven states, however, saw crime rates actually increase in this period: Montana (203.2%), South Dakota (200.6%), West Virginia (178.4%), New Hampshire (149.1%), Alaska (121.2%), Wisconsin (109.7%), and Nevada (105.8%). Another seven, including my home state of Iowa, had crime rates between 80 and 100 percent of the 1990 level, declines that are unlikely to be perceptible at the level of personal experience. Incidentally...
  • the largest metro area in these fourteen states is Las Vegas, Nevada (pop. 2,114,801, rank 29th); most of these states had no metros close to this size. I wonder if the surge and decline in violent crime since 1960 was largely an urban phenomenon?
  • The 14 states' 2012 presidential votes were roughly split, but more Republican than the nation as a whole: Mitt Romney won eight of the 14 for an electoral vote advantage of 40-34. This offers mild-at-best support to the thought that the Republican Party's 2016 theme might resonate with their core voters' experiences.
Even at the national level where data are joyous, explanations vary widely, which is hardly going to give people confidence that we know how we got here or how to sustain the decline. Washington Post reporter Max Ehrenfreund (2015) lists five common explanations for the decline in homicides, all of which can be extended to violent crime in general:
  1. Larger police forces, funded by the federal Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 as well as state and local initiatives. The ratio of police officers to the general population increased in the mid-1990s, though it had declined to its previous level by 2010. Some analysts credit this with reducing the incidence of crime (Levitt 2004), while others do not (Kleck and Barnes 2010).
  2. Use of big data by law enforcement agencies enables better targeting of resources. Specifically identifying certain "hot spots" means police officers can be where the action is, or is likely to be, and their being there can prevent some of it (Roeder, Eisen and Bowling 2015: 67-73).
  3. Alcohol consumption per capita, as estimated by the National Institutes of Health, shows a remarkably similar surge and decline with violent crime, rising from around 2 gallons per person through 1958 to a peak of 2.76 (1980-81), and then declining to 2.15 in the late 1990s (Haughwout et al. 2016, Table 1). Since 1999 it has risen back to around 2.3. Should we be alarmed yet? It makes sense that alcohol consumption beyond a certain level is associated with violence, but who knows why national alcohol consumption rises and falls? 
  4. The banning of leaded gasoline under the Clean Air Act of 1970 removed a significant hazard to developing young brains, which may have made people less likely to turn violent. However, criminologist Phil Cook notes that the decline in violent crime occurred among all age cohorts, not just those benefiting from the lead ban, so he is skeptical (Kleiman 2014). Meanwhile, many children in older homes--including, in the 1990s, the unfortunate Freddie Gray--still face the hazard of lead paint (Bendix 2016).
  5. Sustained economic growth beginning in 1982 preceded the sharp bend in the violent crime curve, and could have accounted for increased confidence and greater actual economic opportunity as well as more money to spend on security. However, it doesn't explain why the declining crime rate has continued past 2000, which years have seen two recessions including one of epic proportions, and when even periods of economic growth have been paradoxically unhelpful to poverty rates and median incomes. And if people in power knew how to fix that paradox, they'd do it, instead of rounding up the same old partisan policy proposals.
Other explanations include (6) the zero-tolerance approach by police to nuisance behavior known as "broken windows" (Wilson and Kelling 1982); (7) "community policing," which is more direct interaction by police with citizens, emphasizing a cooperative approach to problem solving; (8) increased incarceration, thought to decrease crime by incapacitating the most likely offenders; (9) declining proportion of the population in the most crime-prone age group i.e. those between 15 and 24 years of age; (10) widespread repeal of gun regulations and adoption of "right-to-carry" measures; and (11) the end of the surge in use of crack cocaine by the mid-1990s. The Brennan Center for Justice produced in 2015 a comprehensive review of the various theories including results of their own empirical analyses, What Caused the Crime Decline?, which is available online. They find support for theories 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (broken out various ways) and 9 (for the 1990s only). Needless to say, the other theories have their advocates, too. The point is that the degree of uncertainty about what caused the positive outcomes of the last 25 years can lead to anxiety about whether they can or will be sustained. Or that an equally unexplainable short-term uptick isn't the first sign of Armageddon (Ehrenfreund and Lu 2016), especially if opportunistic political candidates are pushing that story (Jacobson 2016b, "Fact Checker" 2016).

Whatever the reason(s) for the long-term decline in violent crime, public reaction has often been muted-to-disbelieving. In most of the 25 years that the incidence of crime has been reduced, large majorities of the American population have told polls crime is actually on the increase.

Most years since 1990 vast majorities think crime is on the increase. Source: Gallup
Policy analyst Wesley K. Skogan of Northwestern University points out that, of course, beliefs about the nationwide incidence of violent crime is not the same as personal fear of being victimized. In a 2011 paper he reported ten years of survey data from Chicago that showed declining fear of crime, which he attributed to declining incidence of both crime and disorderly behavior, improvement in the physical appearance of neighborhoods and increased confidence in the police. And there's all that movement back to cities to back him up. However, it seems to me that if most people believe overall crime to be on the increase, feelings of personal safety are more vulnerable to change. And confidence in the police has been shaken by a number of widely-publicized police shootings of black men and in some cases their own ham-handed responses (See also Ruud 2014).

A sudden increase in incidents involving firearms--shootings in Chicago in the first half of 2016 were half again as many as the same period in 2015 (Sweeney and Gorner 2016), and on a much smaller scale Cedar Rapids saw a spate of shootings (KCRG 2016)--focus attention on crime, although it's hard to account for the consistency of public perception as depicted above. A small number of spectacular, widely-publicized terror attacks in America and elsewhere in the West can also fuel the impression that danger is increasing. And, as I've shown earlier, the nationwide improvement in violent crime rates has been experienced to varying degrees in particular areas.

Many people blame news media for this misimpression by pushing sensational "if it bleeds, it leads" reporting (See about a zillion sources, such as Matthew Robinson, Media Coverage of Crime and Criminal Justice, Carolina Academic, 2010).  David Rothenberg of the Fortune Society wrote The New York Times after the 2016 Republican convention: "Perception is everything at election time. Any casual surfing of the television channels tonight will show murder after murder. Sadly, some of the most dramatic 'crime stories' never make prime time — the stories of men and women being released from prison, facing barriers that limit housing and jobs, fighting personal demons while navigating societal restrictions, struggling just to get through the day. Such stories are the ones that should be surfacing at political conventions. The fiction lives while the truth remains in the shadows." For this reason, violent crime gets far more attention per incident than do fatal auto crashes (Shultis 2016).

Both the reality and perception of crime are important to the future of cities. Urban criminals most frequently victimize the most vulnerable of our citizens; as Dreier et al. point out (Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century, Kansas University Press, 2001, 202-203) most residents of high-crime urban neighborhoods are hard-working and law-abiding, but suffer from predation by a few of their neighbors. To compete successfully with suburbs for residents and businesses, cities need at minimum to be clean and safe (Duany et al., Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, North Point, 2000, 157-158). The dangerous reputation of cities makes many people fearful of the population density we need to be environmentally and fiscally sustainable (Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy, MIT Press, 2006, 205).

Crime and the fear of it threaten to undermine our efforts to build a common life. A common life in the 21st century depends on the success of cities: It's where a large percentage of our citizens live and more are moving, urban design is the most ecologically and fiscally resilient, and diversity and the potential for inclusion are greatest. To the extent Trump's dystopian rhetoric resonates with a significant part of the American population, cities and the people who care about them must strive to improve their reputation.

ON THE SAME TOPIC: Josh Stephens, "Trump to Cities: You're Dead to Me," Planetizen, 26 July 2016, http://www.planetizen.com/node/87620/trump-cities-youre-dead-me

NOTE: The Department of Justice compiles data from the FBI and other agencies at the Bureau of Justice statistics page. However, I find other aggregators easier to use; for this piece I used the same data as found at Disaster Center.