Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Urbanism review

I've been invited to give a number of public talks this summer and fall, and at least a couple of them will allow me to spread the word about urbanist design. Urbanism (sometimes new urbanism, but it's not new anymore) is the set of ideas I along with many non-planners first encountered in the 1990s with James Howard Kunstler's critique of post-war development, The Geography of Nowhere (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993).

Kunstler's thorough, slashing prose made such intuitive sense to me that I wonder if I've always been an urbanist, and only lacked the conceptual vocabulary to articulate it. Not everyone swallows the premises of the urbanist argument so quickly, however, as I was reminded last fall when one of my students praised Cedar Rapids's Collins Road strip for having every store you could possibly want. I look at an endless sea of franchises arrayed thusly...

...and I see unwalkable form and hideous appearance, not to mention the intensity of infrastructure is costly. It does have a lot of stores, though.

For a starting point, then, we turn to two questions from the Strong Towns Strength Test, plus one I made up, that establish a baseline picture of any city. (The other eight strength test questions are good, too, but these are things someone could answer off the top of their head.)
  1. Take a picture (or a mental picture) of your town at midday. Does the picture show more people than cars?
  2. Is it safe for children to walk or bike to school and many of their other activities without adult supervision?
  3. I'm visiting your home. You're going to show me one of the best places in your town. How do we get there?
Marion's Novak School lies across busy 29th Street, which has a left-turn lane but no crosswalk
The answers to these questions matter. Here's why. For most of the last 75 years, America has built cities to facilitate the movement...

...and storage of cars.

"Sprawl" has hollowed out downtowns and neighborhoods, and made it difficult-to-impossible to get most places without a car. That means (see sources below especially Duany et al chs 1-2, 4 & 7, Calthorpe and Fulton ch 1, Kellbaugh ch 1):
  • Isolation of individuals: youth and elderly have difficulty getting around, social groups don't encounter each other, no one gets exercise unless they intentionally work out
  • Unattractive civic spaces;
  • Areas of concentrated poverty disconnected from economic opportunities and civic life;
  • Traffic congestion, as single-occupancy vehicles travel the same paths as people go about their daily business;
  • Deaths and injuries in auto crashes;
  • Environmental costs, starting with wasted energy, as well as air pollution and climate change from auto emissions;
  • Financial liabilities of governments at all levels to maintain the infrastructure;
  • Financial costs to individuals who must have a car to get around; and
  • Less opportunity for local businesses because potential customers are whizzing by them (or struggling by them on congested roads)
To address these consequences, urbanists seek a return to the traditional neighborhood model of urban growth (Duany et al. ch. 4; Calthorpe and Fulton chs 1 & 2, Hester). This means designing places that are:
  1.  walkable and human-scaled: safe for bikes and pedestrians, interesting (signs of human activity), and creating a sense of enclosure with street trees and buildings constructed to engage people on the street (neither "towers in the park" nor "snout houses") 
  2. diverse in population: economic class, race, gender and sexual preference, religion, ethnicity, you name it
  3. varied in uses: residences, shops, offices and schools close to each other
  4. inclusive of public spaces that serve as community centers and landmarks, attract different kinds of people and foster a sense of commonality
"Chicago Street," painting by Michael Broshar, Waterloo, Iowa
Such places are productive because they foster economic activity without requiring a great deal of public infrastructure or subsidy. Another benefit is they sprout third places, usually commercial establishments that serve as informal meeting spots. Author Ray Oldenburg describes them as "public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work" (1989: 16).

Happy hour at The Lounge, 1st St SE
There are many reasons to be an urbanist: communitarian, environmental, financial, health/safety or sheer personal preference. We can do a lot better on all these scores than we're currently doing.


"The Urbanism CLEF," 4 February 2016 (four approaches to urbanism arranged to form a memorable mnemonic)
"The Parking Dilemma," 31 July 2013 (focus on the work of Donald Shoup)
"Biking in the 21st Century," 28 June 2013 (focus on the work of Jeff Speck)
"Gleanings from the New Urbanism," 19 April 2013 (introduction)


The best first book about these ideas remains Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961). Her fluent, accessible language belies the power of the thoughts behind it. She analyzes how cities work, what makes them succeed and fail, and most importantly conventional misconceptions about cities that lead to disastrous policy choices.

More recently has come a cartload of books on design and its impacts. For me the earliest and most influential include:
Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001)
Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (North Point, 2000)
Randolph T. Hester, Design for Ecological Democracy (MIT Press, 2006)
Douglas S. Kellbaugh, Repairing the American Metropolis: Common Place Revisited (University of Washington, 2002)
Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (DaCapo, 1999)
Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (Planners Press, 2005)
Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtowns Can Save America, One Step at a Time (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012)
Jeff Speck speaks in Cedar Rapids, 2015

Friday, August 11, 2017

Welcome to college!

Source: Flickr
Without really meaning to, I've found I write an education piece about this time every year, which seems appropriate as America heads back to school. Since I wrote on K-12 policy earlier this summer, let's talk about the kind of school where I teach: college.

So you're going to college? Good for you! Having taught full-time at the college level for thirty years, it seems like a natural environment for me, but in the contexts of most people's lives it is a rather weird interlude, not to mention an expensive one. What I would like is for it to be a worthwhile experience.

From my perspective "on the inside," there are many misconceptions about college which can diminish your experience. A cranky column in Sunday's Cedar Rapids Gazette by northeast Iowa writer Sandra Reicks contains a bunch. From the column:
College campuses are heavily tilted toward liberalism. That's why most parents sending a child with conservative leanings off the college have had "the talk" with them. Know who has the power--professors. Know the likely political leaning of these professors--liberal. Know what could happen if you challenge their belief system--the "A" paper could become a "B" paper. Better to keep your head down, get through college, and let your conservatism shine after you have the degree in hand.
The column's argument contains some unstated premises: (1) College is important mainly because a degree provides a credential essential to most careers. How you get there is less important than that you get there. (2) The gatekeepers deciding who gets a degree and who doesn't are the professors. Achieving a degree is basically a matter of keeping the professors happy. If you do that, you can attend all the parties and play all the games you want. You could, I guess, do some assignments for classes, if you're into that sort of thing. (3) Today's society is essentially a battle between people who are Right and people who are Wrong. The Wrong are everywhere. There's nothing we can do about them, other than to avoid them to the extent possible.

If the first one was ever true, it certainly is no longer valid. There is a market for professionals, but it's a highly competitive one in which you will be with a lot of other people who are talented and had GPAs. What differentiates you from the rest will be critical: your ability to communicate, both written and spoken; your ability to think analytically and critically; the experiences you've had along the way; and whatever else you bring to the table that will pay for the cost of hiring you.

And your college wants you to succeed. Colleges have historically not been for-profit businesses, but that doesn't mean they don't operate in a highly competitive marketplace, or are insensitive to the bottom line. Colleges with satisfied, prosperous alumni have successful fund-raising campaigns and can use their reputation to attract the best new students. Colleges with unhappy, struggling alumni do badly financially and reputationally. Donald Trump didn't last long in the college business.

Without denyng the existence of ultimate truths, I argue that very few if any people are always Wrong, and no one is always right. Social phenomena are complex, and nobody has a complete handle on the truth. So the best, not to mention the wisest, way to a common life is through conversations in which the broadest possible set of perspectives is articulated and accounted for.

So, to the stated premise and conclusions: (4) Many college professors are ideologically biased to the extreme left, as well as being petty and vindictive. Therefore, conservative students should humor their professors, keep their own heads down, and figure out whatever they have to do to achieve a diploma.

This is tragically bad advice. It encourages the student to waste four valuable years by hunkering down and avoiding experiences, instead of accumulating experiences to prepare for the job market. It encourages the student to keep at a distance people who could serve as mentors. It encourages the student to close themselves off from others whose perspectives are different from theirs, when in fact they're going to be spending the next several decades of their lives dealing with them. It encourages the student to prepare for life as an "organization man," when that model of business has been absent for decades. It discourages the student from examining their beliefs, allowing those to become what John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1869, chapter 2) called "a dead dogma, not a living truth." Most tragically, it encourages the student to avoid opportunities to learn to disagree respectfully, which is a key life skill in the 21st century. Questions, challenges and contrary facts are NOT disrespectful; they show respect for the person and engagement with the argument. (And if we're only providing this for our conservative students and not our liberal ones, it's the liberals we're cheating.) Really, if students are getting and taking Reicks's advice, no wonder only 36 percent of Republicans think colleges and universities have a positive effect on America.

As a professor in the Internet age, I know I'm not the fount of knowledge, even in my field of study. I know less information than any student with a Smart phone. A classroom in which no one is the acknowledged authority is actually an exciting place where all can learn. What I can do is model the analysis of information from a number of perspectives, and moderate productive conversations. Any student who contributes to those conversations is welcome, and I value any perspective I can learn from. Maybe I'm unusual, but in this regard I don't think I am.

Of course, there need to be rules. An conversation that strives to be inclusive is going to make arguments for exclusion difficult-to-impossible. We need to respect data, however much our interpretations may differ. We need to respect each other, which means arguing in good faith, listening and responding to others, not being cynical, and not retreating into "Well, that's just me." Resist the temptation, which any exposure to social media will show is strong, to caricature and ridicule. Remember the goal is not "winning" some imaginary ideological contest, but to create a common life in which all can thrive.

I'm not saying this can be easily achieved or even easily described. (See my 2013 effort on deliberation.) The national political environment, and that of many states, has not for a long time provided much help by way of example. As David Koyzis points out, the ideal of inclusion exists awkwardly alongside revealed religions like Christianity which make absolute truth claims. (This reality leads me to wonder if a Christian, or a particular type of Christian, can be an urbanist, or an urbanist can be a Christian? I would say yes, and point to Eric O. Jacobsen as a prime example, but it requires a certain flexibility.) But if the way were easy, or straightforward, it would have been paved by now.

At some level, isn't this about negative assumptions about what people will think if I say I own a gun, or oppose abortion, or voted for Trump? (On the other hand, the personal is also political--how vocal should your opposition to homosexuality be in a conversation that inevitably includes gays and lesbians?) Such assumptions ahead of the fact amount to "verdict first, trial later" (if at all). Remember that in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus sends his disciples to "all nations," not to enclaves where they are to complain about the media and political correctness. Remember, too, the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, wherein this:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
You've got this.

SOURCE: Sandra Reicks, "Colleges Promote Diversity--Sometimes," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8 August 2017, 3D

SEE ALSO: "A Silent but Needful Protest," 1 November 2016

Friday, August 4, 2017

Cedar Rapids rolls out bus line changes

Cedar Rapids' rollout of new bus routes and schedules this week produced some confusion but also some positive comments from riders. It will take longer to see whether the mostly minor changes will attract new riders.

The changes fall into three categories:

First, previously-circuitous routes have been straightened somewhat with edges cut off where there was extremely low ridership. For example, two routes that formerly looped around and about the southeast side...

...have been combined into one (eliminated portions represented by dashes).

I think more direct trips will be less frustrating for regular riders, and maybe more inviting for potential riders. Note, though, that the new, continuous eastbound run along high-traffic Mt. Vernon Road has no westbound equivalent, and that the loop up to Washington High School is a bit of a diversion. This is nonetheless about as good as it can be with current resources in a small, non-dense city.

These route changes flummoxed a few riders this week, despite publicity efforts by the system and extensive coverage by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The new routes and schedules were online for several weeks (and available in print form since mid-July) but even informed riders such as your humble blogger were flummoxed by the removal of stops along the routes. This was done to expedite travel along the routes, and while drivers by my observation had been pointing out to riders where stops were being removed, the riders on new routes were presented with a few challenges. Drivers were most accommodating where they could be. I guess all this will take some getting used to.

Timing on the new combined Route 2 may take some tweaking. One concerned local citizen reports the bus arriving at his stop close to the end of the route more than 10 minutes late this week.

Second has been a sharp increase in service along 1st Avenue East from downtown to Lindale Mall (Route 5). Buses now run every 15 minutes throughout the day Monday through Saturday, which is bold innovation for our town. This means that there's no more sweating schedules--just show up at the bus stop and one will be there within 15 minutes tops.
Downtown-bound #5 bus discharges passengers near Coe College
Third and most intriguing has been the establishment of transfer hubs at Lindale Mall and the two Cedar Rapids Wal-Mart stores. Previously all routes went through downtown in a spokes-of-the-wheel sort of arrangement. There were some places where the routes intersected--the stop for Route 6 near Coe College is around the corner from the stop for Route 5--but there was no gain in time from doing it that way. In other words, you would get the same #6 bus whether you got off the #5 by Coe or went all the way downtown--although if you got off at Coe you would have time to stop at Wendy's Restaurant (pictured above) or Brewed Awakenings Coffeehouse (across the street).

Now there are three hubs with three slightly different arrangements.

[a] At Lindale Mall, the #5 bus from downtown meets two circulator routes that never go downtown. Route 20 goes around the adjoining Ciry of Marion, and Route 30 goes across northern Cedar Rapids and the City of Hiawatha. Both the 20 and 30 start and end hourly at Lindale Mall, and spend about 10 minutes there during which #5 appears and takes off.
This time #30 gets there first
#20 pulls up behind
and a few minutes later, #5 joins the party
I was not observant enough to determine whether passengers were moving between the 20 and the 30, as the new routes make possible direct travel between Marion and Hiawatha. Previously three distinct versions of Route 5 running half an hour apart would go from Lindale Mall to northern Marion (#5N), southern Marion (#5S), or Hiawatha (#5B). Riders I overheard were split between preferring the new options and not having to switch buses to go towards downtown Cedar Rapids.

[b] Routes 4, 6 and 30 intersect at Wal-Mart on Blairs Ferry Road NE, stopping at a service road between the main store and the lawn-and-garden center. Routes 4 and 6 both run mostly north-south, with #4 slightly to the east, so I imagine the main benefit from this hub will be the opportunity for passengers to transfer between either of those lines and the #30, rather than between #4 and #6.
The bus stop
At this hub, the buses are not present at the same time. The #30 arrives and departs at the top of the hour; the #6, which runs twice an hour, at 15 and 45 minutes past; and the #4 at 40 minutes past. So a transfer at this hub is going to involve some waiting, albeit the entry to Wal-Mart is climate-controlled with a good view of the incoming bus--and when I was there, pretty quiet.

[c] Routes 1, 10 and 12 intersect at Wal-Mart on Wiley Boulevard SW as well as a number of other points as they wend their ways through a really astonishing tangle of suburban development including the former Westdale Mall.
Bus routes around Westdale: #1 is gold, #10 is green, #12 is blue
Routes 10 and 12 run every half hour; Route 1 runs once an hour. Routes 10 and 12 take parallel routes from downtown, so the value of the hub would seem to be coordination with Route 1, which goes north-south along Edgewood Road, eventually connecting to downtown via O Avenue NW.  They arrive at this stop within five minutes of each other--#10 first, #1 second and #12 third--so the hub would be useful for someone taking #10 from the southwest side and transferring to the #1 to go north on Edgewood, or someone taking #1 south on Edgewood and transferring to the #12 for the southwest side. However, they would be completely dependent upon the buses arriving in the scheduled order.

Bus #10 arrives at the shelter at 31st and Wiley
I didn't see anyone actually switching at this stop. Unlike at Blairs Ferry Road, this stop is at a distance from the stores. Kohl's on the other side of Wiley is accessible by sidewalk, but Wal-Mart and its enormous array of planet stores only via this driveway:

This seems to be the least serviceable hub of the three, but the bus system didn't design the area.

One casualty of the changes in routes is what has to be the metro area's nicest bus stop, on 7th Avenue in downtown ("Uptown") Marion.

Formerly a stop on both Routes 5N and 5S, it is not on the new Route 20, which meets 7th Avenue from the north on 10th Street, one block west. The shops of Uptown Marion are still accessible as ever, and the routes need to go where they serve most efficiently, but give me a moment to salute what has been a sort of jewel of the system.

Cedar Rapids Bus site
Track Cedar Rapids buses in real time here
Samantha Myers, "City of Cedar Rapids Works to Improve Bus System," KCRG, 26 July 2017
Steve Gravelle, "'So Far, So Good:' New Cedar Rapids Bus Routes Running on Schedule," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 1 August 2017
Steve Gravelle, "Cedar Rapids Buses Begin Streamlined Routes Today," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 31 July 2017

"CR's New Bus Routes in Effect July 31," 30 May 2017
"CR Transit Moves Cautiously in the Right Direction," 16 March 2017

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Review essay: who loses when a city develops?

Richard Florida, The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class--and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books, 2017)

Peter Moskowitz, How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood (Public Affairs, 2017)

We've got to make sure the people here are being lifted up from the rising tide.
--ZAK PASHAK, Detroit (quoted at Moskowitz 2017, p. 76)

Peter Moskowitz has a passion for social justice and a talent for long-form journalism, and both come across in How to Kill a City. Built around four urban case studies--New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco and New York City--he looks at the harms that have come to individuals and communities in the last decade's urban resurgence. The damage isn't hard to find, either: people priced out of their longtime homes, landmark buildings torn down and neighborhood establishments shuttered, diverse communities taken over by upper middle class whites.

My main complaint with Moskowitz is that his targets, and the rage they inspire, are too easy. It's easy to point to the racist origins of our cities' physical design, to juxtapose the struggles of the marginalized with the amusements of the upper middle class, to nostalgize everything that's lost and find fault with everything that's replaced it. "Every year I'd see fewer sex workers walking down Washington Street at night" (p 164). Or to complain about cultural differences--"The New York that increasingly engulfs me seems even less interesting than I am" (p 163)--or insensitivity. That's too bad, because while there's a fair amount of explanation and a great deal of (mostly justifiable) outrage over what's happened, there's very little by way of alternative course of action (though see pp. 210-213).

Joe Cortright and his colleagues have documented that poor urban neighborhoods that haven't gentrified, and that's most of them, have become more marginalized. Meanwhile the financial, ecological and cultural consequences of suburban sprawl are not sustainable. The path forward for urban neighborhoods is not some unnamed something-that's-way-better-than-gentrification; it's gentrification that takes account of everyone new and old, black and white, rich and poor.

To extend the quotation above, which Moskowitz dismisses as mere rationalization, a non-rising tide doesn't lift any boats. (Or, maybe, in a zero-sum sort of way, a few get rich at the expense of all the others.) A rising tide, though, doesn't necessarily lift all boats. As Moskowitz describes throughout his book, rising tides can also swamp the boats. The answer is not to wish the tide away, or to curse it, but to manage it for the benefit of all.

That is, of course, easier said than done. A number of cities have tried to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, but their instruments are blunt and their effects uncertain.

Happily Richard Florida, who comes in for his own share of Moskowitz's rage (pp 78-83) as a supposed advocate of unchecked gentrification, is on the case in his latest book, The New Urban Crisis. He describes the causes and ill effects of "winner-take-all urbanism": The most highly prized talent and the most profitable industries, which used to be spread across many smaller and medium-sized cities, increasingly concentrate in a few superstar behemoths (Florida 2017, p 18). Winner-take-all urbanism stems partly from the clustering effect taken to its extreme, but also to "efforts of urban landlords and homeowners to restrict what is built, and in doing so to keep the prices of their own real estate holdings high" (p. 24), and in some "superstar cities," land prices artificially inflated by "the global super-rich... looking for safe places to park their money" (p. 39). As a result, the "creative class" reap all the economic benefits of development, while the service and working classes are often worse off after paying for housing (Table 2.2, p. 31). The less advantaged are shunted into neighborhoods with more crime, worse schools, and the dimmest prospects for upward mobility (pp 149-150) Inequality is most severe in our most successful cities (Fig 6.1, p 110): a 2016 Brookings Institution study found only nine of the top 100 metro areas were more socially inclusive in 2014 than they were in 2005, although nearly all had experienced economic growth during this period (p. 91; the updated version is cited below).

Florida being Florida, there are a lot of data and indexes to measure these phenomena. The ultimate metric is the New Urban Crisis Index (Fig 10.1, p. 187) which combines economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality and housing affordability. Bridgeport, Connecticut ranks highest overall (.978); Los Angeles is #2 and the top large metro (.972). Of Moskowitz's four cases, New York is #3 (.967) and San Francisco is #6 (.922), while the still-digging-out New Orleans is #36 (.787) and Detroit is #85 (.681).

Cedar Rapids scores a relatively benign .233 which ranks it #316 of 359, but one wonders: Have the costs of post-flood development in hip New Bohemia been borne by the working class people who used to live there (a la New Orleans, described in Moskowitz's chapters 1-3)? Is the MedQuarter going to contribute to an island of prosperity while pushing everyone else away (a la Detroit, described in Moskowitz's chapters 4-6)?

Florida's concluding chapter includes a multi-faceted strategy for a more effective urbanism (pp. 191-215):
 (a) more effective clustering by developing the land we have more effectively and efficiently--deregulating land use but also using tools like land value tax to replace property tax, and tax increment local transfers to overcome local prejudice;
 (b) strategic investments in infrastructure including mass transit and high-speed rail;
 (c) building more affordable rental housing including vouchers;
 (d) turning the tens of millions of low-paid service jobs we are stuck with into higher-paying jobs, including higher but locally-based minimum wage;
 (e) anti-poverty investments in people (providing resources or helping them move to new and better neighborhoods) and neighborhoods (schools & early childhood development);
 (f) to deal with urban disasters abroad, shifting the focus of America's foreign and international development policies from nation-building to city-building; and
 (g) to overcome hostility to urban areas in state and federal governments today, a bipartisan movement of mayors to help cities and communities get the increased control they need to address all these challenges.

Florida's proposals are individually debatable, but provide a starting point for ensuring that everyone has a place at our communities' tables. Moskowitz's passionate accounts serve to show that funding urban development without demanding that benefits flow widely leads to gains at the top, stagnation or misery for everyone else. Cities should develop and develop boldly--and regressive state governments should get out of the way--but must not leave its residents to the mercies of whatever happens.

"Gentrification: What Do We Know?" 26 July 2016
Kristen Jeffers, "Gentrification in Shaw Isn't So Black and White," Greater Greater Washington, 7 July 2017
Richard Shearer, Alec Friedhoff, Isha Shah and Alan Berube, "Metro Monitor: An Index of Inclusive Economic Growth in the 100 Largest U.S. Metropolitan Areas," Brookings Institution, March 2017
Josh Stephens, "Pursuing Inclusion, Equity in the Nation's Capital," Planetizen, 10 July 2017
David Whitehead, "Gentrification in DC is a West-of-the-Park Issue, Too," Greater Greater Washington, 21 July 2017

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Design meetings last week

Two public meetings Tuesday raised issues of neighborhood design in the center of town, including enhancing walkability.

At the Metro Economic Alliance downtown, we got our first look at the wayfinding and branding signage chosen for downtown, the MedQuarter, New Bohemia and Czech Village (with City Council approval and timetable yet to come). The signage was developed by Corbin Design which is headquartered in Traverse City, Michigan.

Drivers would be served by this type of sign, indicating which section they're in, and orientation to other sections and attractions.

Pedestrians could benefit from more detailed markers, including "you are here" type maps and interesting historical facts.

Some signs would show walking times to various attractions, which might encourage people to walk more rather than returning to their cars and re-parking.

A closer look at the map, which is stylized and does not depict actual Cedar Rapids.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book review: "Dream Hoarders"

Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Brookings Institution Press, 2017)

The power of Richard V. Reeves's argument is probably best exemplified by the troubled reaction of a New York Times reader. David Anderson of Weston, Florida responded on June 26, 2017, to an op-ed column by Reeves:
My wife and I fall within Richard V. Reeves's target. We met at an Ivy League school in the 1990s and fall within his "healthy six-figure" income range. Our children attend an expensive private school. If you are waiting for us to apologize, don't hold your breath.
Mr. Reeves should leave the Beltway and meet some upper-middle-class Americans. It might be enlightening. We attended good schools because we studied hard. We're not legacies: Nobody else in our families attended an Ivy League school. If you met us 20 years ago, you would have seen two 25-year-olds with no money, swimming in student loans in a roach-infested studio apartment in Manhattan.
We worked around the clock to pay our loans off. Then we started a business with $7,000 of our own money. We've made a nice living grinding away over the last two decades, which you are certainly free to characterize as "luck or a rigged system." 
 We send our children to the best school we can find, and we do so "without so much as a murmur of moral disquiet." Why? Here is one reason: Over the last 20 years, we have paid millions in taxes. What have we gotten in return? Bad public schools not worthy of our children and $20 trillion in federal debt. And we are the problem because we want the best for our children?
Reeves, a British-born economist with the Brookings Institution who is also Co-Director of the Center for Children and Families, takes a nuanced, data-rich look at economic inequality in America. While some of his premises are empirical--a society that constricts opportunity is both less internationally competitive and internally unified, and "a mixed team is a better team" (p. 121)--his principal premise is moral: America prides itself on equality of opportunity but it needs to live up to that ideal better than is currently happening:
I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016.... There are lots of reasons I have made America my home. But one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top. (p. 5)
Reeves reasonably allows admits takes the reasonable position that economic inequality is often functional, in that it allows rewards to go to those who do socially useful things. Unequal outcomes that result from fair competition are fine, but they become highly problematic when that inequality becomes ossified across generations. This is, I think, a weakness in Adam Smith's iconic argument for market economies. (I write "I think" because, while my devotion to The Wealth of Nations is passionate, it's a huge work. Not only have I not read all of it, I can't claim I've grasped all the nuances of the parts I have read.) Smith says that in a free market, economic rewards flow to those who are industrious and create things that society values. Those "winners" then have extra money they can spend on luxury goods which the rest of us can envy, which in turn ought to inspire us to be industrious and useful too. OK.

But Smith doesn't as far as I know address round two of the competition. It stands to reason that the winners could spend some of their winnings on political power, in order to insure themselves against competition) as well as buying their children advantages over all other children. Writing in an era where there was real hereditary aristocracy, Smith could be forgiven for not addressing the likelihood that capitalism could quickly create its own ruling class.

Reeves documents two ways in which the children of the winners--defined here as those in the upper 20 percent of incomes, which in 2014 meant families over $112,000--separate themselves from the children of everyone else that tend to limit competition and preserve advantages. He distinguishes the two ways with the help of a metaphor he brings out two or three times: We would look kindly on a father who helps his son get picked as starting pitcher for his school baseball team by practicing with him every evening after work. But we would likely feel differently about a father who secures the coveted lot for his son by bribing the coach (p. 98).

The style in which they're raised gives competitive advantages to the fortunate fifth. Far from doing something wrong, in many of these areas the upper middle class is setting a good example, which others would do well to follow (p. 93). Upper-middle class babies are more likely to be planned pregnancies in a marriage, to be exposed in early childhood to more parental contact, language, trips, and books, and to have better teachers and an easier route to college (ch. 3). This means when they enter the job market, the balance of merit is all on the side of those children (ch. 5).

More perniciously, though, the winners achieve public policies that keep their families on top and other families--with rare exceptions--down. Reeves begins his book with President Obama's 2015 attempt to replace 529 college savings programs, the benefits of which flow largely to the "favored fifth," with a broader program, but which was blocked by united bipartisan opposition in Congress (pp. 1-2). Urbanists will recognize the effects of zoning ordinances to keep exclusive neighborhoods exclusive which restricts access to the opportunities they afford, like "good" schools (ch. 6). Along with the mortgage interest tax deduction, "we are using the tax system to help richer people buy bigger houses near the best schools" (p. 105). Colleges continue these advantages: Who but upper-middle class students can afford to do unpaid internships? (He also has an extended discussion of legacy slots in college admissions, which is so far from my world that I can't comment.) By the time the upper-middle class gets to the job market (pp. 119-121), it's no wonder they appear to be the stronger candidates.

For the upper-middle class to respond to these findings with denial or anger, in the manner of letter-writer Anderson, is to be willfully blind to the tendency of the market system to create its own permanent hierarchy in which they reside. No one can deny that successful people work hard and make good choices; the problem is rather that most people who work hard don't get rewards commensurate with their efforts--which (to extend Smith's logic) has to be discouraging. So is the proper response feelings of guilt? Hardly--for the upper-middle class to respond to these findings with guilt is useless.

We should use our political power to work for a society that supports our common life in a truly inclusive way. Reeves's concluding chapter includes ten policy recommendations. Some deal with the "problem" of upper-middle class parents spending extra time practicing baseball with their kids. In other words, how can we help all parents be able to find that time? He suggests access to better contraception, home visiting programs, encouraging better teachers to work in low-SES neighborhood schools, and expanded housing voucher programs. All would require policy changes, and some would require government outlays. They would also require upper-middle class people to recognize where opportunities for others could be improved, not to mention overcoming silly squeamishness about contraception and government spending.

Things get even trickier politically when policy changes directly address the unearned privileges of upper-middle-class children (analogous to "bribing the coach"). These include an income-contingent college loan system, limiting exclusionary zoning, an end to legacy admissions, making internships more accessible by requiring they be paid, and reforming taxation to end subsidies for the well-off. These require government action, but even before that a "change of heart" among the upper-middle class: recognizing privilege, bringing behavior into line with beliefs about fairness, and a willingness to share the American dream (pp. 14-15).

An economically mobile society could be more unified, because unlike now people are likely to know others at all economic levels. It could also be more humane, if those at the top realize they and their offspring aren't guaranteed to stay there. Reeves quotes "JB," who commented on his 2013 column "The Glass Floor Problem":
Parents' desperation to keep their children in the top 20%... is at least partly driven by their fear of what happens in the 21st century to young people who are in the middle or lower: job insecurity, contingent and contract employment, no health insurance, outsourcing, and the rest. (p. 73)
It's a long way down from the favored fifth. I have argued elsewhere that generating broad career opportunity is one of the core challenges facing us. Maybe one of the reasons solutions are so elusive is that the most politically powerful class feels insulated against the dislocations everyone else has to deal with?

Reeves's analysis is based on social class. Racial and sex discrimination are mentioned and he doesn't argue against their reality (pp. 21-22, e.g.) but the employment market for working-age adults is treated largely as merit-based. Particularly "on the top rungs of society, where market meritocratic values dominate, class barriers are rising, even as those related to race are slowly lowered" (p. 120). This might be seen as a flaw; I'd prefer to see it as focus on one set of serious barriers to opportunity in a world where sex and race also matter.

Elizabeth Mann, "The 'Word Gap' and One City's Plan to Close It," Brown Center Chalkboard, 10 July 2017
Richard V. Reeves, "Don't Want to Be a Dream Hoarder? Here Are 5 Things You Can Do Right Now," Social Mobility Memos, 23 June 2017

"The Future is Exciting and Scary," 24 June 2013
"Is There a 'Natural' Minimum Wage," 15 March 2014
[or click on the Inequality link in the right hand column under "Labels"]

Monday, July 17, 2017

The housing conundrum: Cedar Rapids

Left to right: Stacey Walker, Linn County Board of Supervisors; Laura O'Leary, Landlords of Linn County;
Phoebe Trepp, Willis Dady Homeless Shelter, Lisa Gavin, Iowa Legal Aid;
Jeff Capps, Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity; Jennifer Pratt, City of Cedar Rapids
Some takeaways from this weekend's community conversation on affordable housing:
  1. The focus of the discussion was not on housing for, say, teachers and firefighters, as it might have been in New York or San Francisco. Most of the panelists' concerns dealt with those employed at the low end of the pay scale, people with criminal records, and people with disabilities. Lisa Gavin, staff attorney for Iowa Legal Aid, noted their clients typically pay more than 50 percent of their income for housing--the official standard of "affordable" is below 30--which makes them one crisis away from homelessness. For a typical Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipient, for example, receiving $735 a month, even $300/month rent is not affordable. Dale Todd, who moderated the discussion, cited the well-known situation created by de-institutionalizing mentally ill people without a plan for housing them.
  2. All panelists looked to the federal government for funding. Jennifer Pratt, Cedar Rapids' director of community development, noted that while there are options for housing "at all price points," the problems of low-income people aren't solvable by the private market. Section 8 vouchers work for those who can get them, meaning voucher holders can and do rent apartments, but largely because of limited program resources 80 percent of those who are eligible for Section 8 vouchers don't get them (Phoebe Trepp). The program is, however, "on the chopping block" in President Trump's FY18 budget (Jennifer Pratt). Cedar Rapids has no budget for homelessness, and Linn County provides $30,000 annually, so Willis Dady relies on federal funding and applies for state grants (Phoebe Trepp). Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity provides 6-10 new homes per year, as well as help with repairs, but is looking for ways to help families who aren't homeownership-ready by "creatively leveraging dollars that are out there" (Jeff Capps). In addition to funding, current federal regulation from the Obama administration requires landlords not to excluce all those with criminal records, but to take into account factors like the time and nature of the crime (Dale Todd); that regulation is, of course, subject to change in the Trump administration.
  3. There appeared to be an opening, indeed an eagerness, for dialogue between housing advocates and landlords. While many landlords do not currently accept Section 8 vouchers, those present seemed amenable to doing so if their complaints were addressed like extra leases and inspections (Laura O'Leary). O'Leary noted there is no program available to help landlords make necessary repairs; another landlord, Gary Grimm, such an approach could be used as incentive for landlords to accept Section 8. Lisa Gavin of Iowa Legal Aid, noting that tenants encounter issues of rodents, plumbing, mold and HVAC but often don't act because "I have nowhere else to go," looked forward to collaboration with landlords and community buy-in, with the goals of achieving improved supply with profitability. Jeff Capps, executive director of Cedar Valley Habitat for Humanity, also hoped to work with landlords and developers on "bold steps" to respond to the shortage.
One thing they didn't discuss much on the panel is location. There are the core neighborhoods with older housing stock, a lot of which, Dale Todd noted, is deteriorating. But they are also located close to rapidly-developing areas like downtown and New Bohemia (as well as the future MedQuarter) which could if done right provide access to employment. That is less true for people who have moved or been pushed out to Blairs Ferry Road, Johnson Avenue or Pioneer Avenue. The low-income housing complex on Edgewood Road was well-intentioned, but that area is only connected to productive places by car, the ownership of which is either unaffordable or a huge burden to the marginally-employed.

Lastly, Phoebe Trepp of Willis Dady Homeless Shelter noted that "the will is here" to move forward on this issue, but those at the panel are fully occupied with their own tasks. "We need a leader to take this on," she said. How does such a leader emerge?

SEE ALSO: "The Housing Conundrum," 6 June 2017, for a national perspective with source list
Connor Morgan, "Cedar Rapids City Leaders Consider Options to Make Housing More Affordable," CBS2Iowa.com, 15 July 2017

Monday, July 10, 2017

Post No. 250: Staying on what really matters

Photo of Cedar Rapids 2016 flood preparation by Ben Kaplan, and stolen shamelessly from his Medium site
When people find out I teach American government, more often than not they try chatting me up about the last election or ask what I think of President Trump. These are not conversations I seek: I've written about the election and about Trump, whose presidency has been as shameful as his campaign was...
Our common life would probably go better if we didn't mock disabled people
...but anyone who knows me knows I'm not a "political junkie" who spends hours watching cable news, fainting with excitement over who's up and who's down in national government, and grooving on manufactured outrage. Maybe I suspect people are too hungry for affirmation, either that I agree with them that Trump is awful, or else that I am an academic elite who can't be trusted.

Trump is awful--he's dishonest even by the standards of the stereotypical politician, he's not a competent manager, and to the extent he has policy ideas they're not good ones--but what good would it do to masticate on this? Early on in this blog, I resolved to focus on what affects our capacity for common life, and I've stuck to that as well as I can. The monumental issues of economic opportunity, sustainability (environmental and financial), and inclusion/diversity would require our sustained attention no matter who was President. Trump, who you have probably deduced I didn't support, is the political equivalent of "F--- it all, let's just go watch cartoons." Too much focus on Trump is actually watching the cartoons. Here on Holy Mountain you and I try to treat serious things seriously.

Consider this: In my town, you know what people are really upset about? Nothing to do with Trump. It's fireworks. Iowa legalized fireworks this year, and they've been going off every night since late May, which is getting on people's nerves. Jean-Paul Sartre told us that's what other people tend to do anyway, but we can't overlook the universal need for some peace and quiet in our lives. Too much noise at night and eventually people get cranky. Now it's up to the City Council to figure out how to achieve that. For the rest of us, the lesson is that national politics can be stimulating, but local conditions are what touch our lives every day.

Source: vexels.com
This summer I've moved my base of operations off the Coe College campus to the Geonetric Building, which is in the heart of local development action. I'm in a co-working space with techies, startups and visionaries, and within a few blocks are hundreds of people helping to make Cedar Rapids succeed in all manner of ways. I've been writing, as you know, loyal reader, mostly updating myself on public policy research and initiatives. There have been some administrative duties for the college. And I need to school myself on Chinese philosophy, which I'm working into my fall course on Ancient and Medieval Political Theory.

But I'm also dipping my toe into "the arena." In my last reflective post, a little over a year ago, I claimed my calling was critical analysis, and was willing to leave the action to others. This summer, however, I've gotten involved in:
  • Imagine Mound View. Corridor Urbanism, the group Ben Kaplan and I started a few years ago, is producing an event this fall in the historic Mound View neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. We're recruiting food vendors, activities, city officials and non-profits to a street fair September 9, with the intent of promoting urbanist-style development in the area. Getting there involves city permits, arranging insurance and recruiting participants. This is way bigger than anything I've ever been involved in planning, and everything requires many hands. I'm so used to doing everything myself, whether it's a talk that needs preparing or student papers need grading or I feel a blog post coming on. I'm not used to relying on others, and of course my priorities are not necessarily their priorities.
  • Room with a Brew. I've also been recruiting restaurant/bars to this event sponsored by the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. The organization promotes residential and business development with an eye to historic preservation; the event, which occurred for the first time last year, is a self-guided tour of the district's urban life, including apartments and condos ("room") and local eating establishments ("brew"). Getting people to agree to be part of this has not been difficult, but getting and keeping their attention has been. Apparently doing things requires a lot of work.
I close this bit of self-indulgence with a great round of thanks to you who read this, whether you're new to the blog or a long-time follower. These have been, according to Blogger, the five most viewed posts of the first 4.25 years:

  1. A Silent But Needful Protest, 1 November 2016 [Coe College responds to the defacing of Multicultural Fusion posters]
  2. Snout Houses? In Oakhill-Jackson??, 16 October 2016 [Suburban style development in a historic Cedar Rapids neighborhood]
  3. Let's Hear It for Cedar Rapids, 5 September 2016 [The Mayors Bike Ride and everything else going on Labor Day weekend]
  4. Crime and Our Common Life, 1 August 2016 [The mysterious rise and fall and possibly now rise of violent crime rates in America]
  5. Linn County's First Bicycle Boulevard, 29 August 2016 [3rd Street is really just a sharrow]
The five least viewed are all from 2013 and 2014, which I take as a hopeful sign:

  1. Halloween 2013, 1 November 2013 [Halloween as civic holiday... Strong Towns' Rachel Quednau had a good article on the same topic last fall]
  2. Nothing Says Community Like..., 13 January 2014 [Take your Christmas tree to this parking lot and it will be made into trails]
  3. A Holiday Tradition, 24 November 2013 [Christmas at Brucemore National Historic Site]
  4. Downtown Construction Continues, 23 September 2014 [early stages of the CRST building, might have the fewest words of any posts on this blog]
  5. (tie) Fourth of July in Cedar Rapids, 5 July 2013 & A Quick Thought About Michael Sam, 11 February 2014 [the many facets of a civic holiday, a defensive lineman comes out]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

What's up, Cleveland?

Cleveland, Ohio, has had as tough a time as any American city making the transition from the industrial to the post-industrial era. During the decade 2005-2015, when many observers saw a return to urban centers by both residents and businesses, Cleveland's population actually dropped by 14.2 percent, more than any large city except for Detroit and New Orleans. On key indicators of community well-being, Cleveland's percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher (15.8), median household income ($26150), and percentage of adults in the labor force (58.2) score well below the U.S. as a whole, and below even comparable cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. This has occurred despite the presence of "eds and meds" led by the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, the city's largest employer.

The City of Cleveland has maintained a lot of the downtown architecture from its heyday, while trying to open up access to Lake Erie. The Terminal Tower was built in 1930 as transportation hub and commercial space, overlooking Public Square:

Inside views:

Public Square is a pedestrian plaza, managed by the mayorally-appointed Group Plan Commission. Beginning in 2011 and dedicated in 2016, the remade Public Square was the first project for the commission, though the new young trees provided little protection from the Sun on the hot day we visited:

Public Square in 1920. Source: Wikipedia
Public Square also contains the 1894 Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, which we were surprised to find was open to the public. Our guide says "90% of Clevelanders know this is here, and 10% know it's open to the public." The interior lists all county residents who served in the Civil War, as well as stained glass windows and sculptures with varying degrees of fancifulness.

Across Public Square from the Tower Center is the Old Stone (First Presbyterian) Church, built in 1855 though Presbyterians have been worshiping on this corner since 1819:

The view down Ontario Street towards the courthouse:

On the other end of the visual delight spectrum, the view down Prospect Avenue towards the Tower Center. Casinos are not civic buildings:

Along Rockwell Avenue, a sign of difficult walking. If the design cues are saying "Cross here," a lot of good a sign is going to do.

The Cleveland Public Library is two blocks from Public Square down Superior Street. Its new Louis Stokes Wing sits nicely next to the original facility, and has some quiet spaces inside...

...while the Eastman Reading Garden between them made for a shady parklet, popular on this sunny summer day.

The commercial areas around the city center feature a lot of massive buildings, historic but not enough variety to be inviting. An exception was East 4th Street, a narrow street closed to traffic and featuring a number of popular gathering places:

The Arcade, a proto-mall dating from 1890, by contrast was rather quiet even on a hot day. Its architecture is impressive...

...but shops like this might have been busier with street access.

North of downtown is Lake Erie. There's enough car traffic to make walking tricky; the Group Plan Commission plans a pedestrian bridge which may help. Attractions (besides the lake) include the home field for the NFL's Cleveland Browns (at left)...

...the Great Lakes Science Science Center...

...and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

We went east via rapid transit to visit the Cleveland Museum of Art. There's some transit-oriented development happening by the new Little Italy stop....

...bringing new people to a charming, walkable neighborhood.

The Cozad-Bates House, build in 1853

Even "star" cities struggle with issues of concentrated poverty, gentrification, infrastructure and so on. Cleveland's struggle to catch up to the post-industrial world exacerbating all those other struggles. A whirlwind tour of the city shows it has good bones in many places, civic attractions that are well-supported, a powerful if mixed heritage, and efforts towards promoting walkability. In theory all a city can do is lay the groundwork for prosperity and then the private sector takes over. What does it do when step one doesn't seem to be working?

(Or maybe it is starting to work? This article in Cleveland Magazine documents a dramatic change in attitude among Cleveland residents towards their home city. Those interviewed for the article seem to put unwarranted faith in attitude and branding as keys to success, but do I have a better answer?)

"Can Cities Change Their Luck," 20 June 2016
"Two Tales of Cities," 7 June 2016
All things Cleveland at cleveland.com
Sheehan Hannan, "Who Are We Now," Cleveland Magazine, 1 July 2017

Urbanism review

I've been invited to give a number of public talks this summer and fall, and at least a couple of them will allow me to spread the ...