Archive for communities

Has low density hampered America’s educational achievement?

For decades, American high school students’ ranking in global achievement testing have been falling.  Is it possible that the very suburban communities that parents sought to help their children have actually hindered their performances, at least in aggregate?

I have a theory, and only a little circumstantial evidence.  But would welcome tips on actual studies or obtaining access to data to examine this question properly.  Here’s how the theory works:

First, there is a correlation between higher density cities and innovation (as measured by patents). It’s also widely accepted urban theory that this is because higher density places, like cities, force people to be exposed to and interact with new people, ideas and things constantly.  This makes them smarter, so the theory goes.

Second, there is a correlation between higher density cities and economic productivity. Doubling density increases productivity between 10 and 20 percent according to one study.

Third, earlier this week, Ryan Avent, pondering Ed Glaeser’s work, suggested that relocating high tech jobs from high density places like Silicon Valley to lower density locales like Raleigh may have hurt America’s economic productivity.

…is it really so strange to imagine that two decades of migration from productive cities with high average wages to less productive cities with low average wages would have a significant impact on national average labor productivity, on national wages, and on national employment and output growth? Raleigh is innovative, but one of the key’s to Raleigh’s success is the fact that its land is dirt cheap relative to the home base of many of the technology companies that have opened offices there: Silicon Valley.

So, if most American students live in lower density places than their peers in Europe and Asia, could it be possible that this–in part–is a reason for lower performance on science and math tests, which are basically a series of challenges or problems to solve.

Do children in higher density areas encounter informal problem-solving challenges far more frequently than their suburban counterparts and therefore have had more practice, more opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills?  The urban challenge may be how to communicate with someone from another country, or how to navigate a Razor scooter down a busy sidewalk, but it’s still a problem to solve. In one recent series of tests, students from rapidly growing and changing Shanghai were tops in the world. Coincidence?

If density matters for economic productivity and innovation productivity, surely it matters for education productivity.

Certainly, there are other compounding reasons why America has some catching up to do in the global education race.  But maybe a shift toward higher density living could help.  If nothing else, the college-educated, middle-class parents, who previously would have moved to suburbia in search of good schools,  might instead support new schools–or work hard to improve the existing ones–in their newer transit-oriented, higher density communities. This might benefit all children in the area, rich and poor.

What changed our view of cities in 2010

Thinking back on 2010, there were at least three noteworthy phenomenon that have helped change the discussion about cities and how we live in them.  Here are my three.  Feel free to debate, or add your own in the comments section.

1. The discussion and debate surrounding Richard Florida’s publishing of The Great Reset.  In Canada, bloggers and the media focused more on his argument about urbanization supporting the knowledge economy and broader creativity–the new economic reality for the 21st century.   In the US the discussion was more about the role of home ownership in slowing the needed economic restructuring, tying people to places with dying economies.  But everywhere, it got many thinking about the relationship between how we live, where we live, and the economy.

2. Walkscore.com saw it’s popularity and use expand, and received the funds to expand its offerings, adding more heatmaps, a transit score, commute report and a commercial property score.  Taken in conjunction with discussion coming from The Great Reset, walkscore provides some quantiative data on amenity density and walkability that can be correlated to economic or job growth.  By mapping features and amenities of a city, it’s allowing for discussion of what makes an ideal home location.

3. Social media is playing a growing role in city politics and city life.   Key city policies are now arguably discussed and debated on blogs and websites more than in town-hall or council meetings.  Naheed Nenshi harnessed social media to offer a more walkable and urban vision for the city and seize the mayor’s chair in Calgary.  And twitter has more people sharing urban events with each other and the world.

Solving the rental housing shortage and price challenge

Many dynamic cities throughout North America have a housing challenge.  Prices are high, whether people wish to rent or own.  In some neighbourhoods escalating prices may be pushing out people who have lived in the community for years, even helped to build it into a great place that is now desirable. Many communities may also be becoming less economically diverse as the minimum income needed to move in may be well above the regional average.

While some suggest trying to forbid any redevelopment or even substantial renovations to homes and buildings (that is, stopping gentrification), I don’t think this is a solution.  Communities are like organic entities. They grow, evolve and change constantly.  Trying to hold them back would be like magically making your cute 3 year old stay in her cute state forever–very quickly she would stop growing and developing, which is actually the very thing that makes her interesting and cute at any one stage.

What can help keep neighbourhoods more economically diverse, with housing for everyone, is greater density and greater flexibility of housing types in those communities where prices are escalating fast (that is, where demand to live there exceeds supply).

In the Vancouver metro area, and in many cities across Canada (and the world) people are starting to increase the value they place on: short commutes, walkable communities, transit-oriented communities, and living a more sustainable lifestyle (less auto use, for example).  If you want a healthier planet and environment, this is a good thing.  But it has the consequence of higher housing prices.

 In my view, the challenge in all of these cities is and will be two fold:

First, get people in existing walkable,’hoods with great transit to accept greater density: more neighbours. This can be what I’ve called “stealth” density (homes you don’t really see from the street) like laneway houses, basement suites, front-back duplexes, etc. It can, of course, also be apartment towers which are appropriate in certain places, or condos/apts over storefronts on busy streets.  If the supply of housing can increase, it will help prevent prices from rising further and maybe help them come down in a few places. And the city will also have to welcome proposals to provide more housing through a variety of creative approaches including reducing parking requirements for new homes in walkable, transit-oriented places.

 Second, steps need to happen to convert suburban areas that are currently more auto-centered into more walkable areas with amenities nearby.  This will also mean existing residents in these places accepting more density and even some new commercial uses in their areas.  You don’t get the customers for successful organic grocers, coffee bars, clothing stores, etc. without a lot of people living nearby, but increasingly you don’t get people wanting to live nearby without the grocers and cafes.  

 And housing of any type is helpful in making rental accommodations more affordable to those of modest means.  We need more purpose-built rental, more owner-occupied homes, more co-ops, more co-housing projects, more subsidized housing plans, and anything creative in between.  This will help push down prices, or at least stop their escalation in places with growing populations or growing demands.

Sometimes I hear renters’ rights groups protesting a city planning department giving a concession to a luxury rental project, claiming it doesn’t help the poor and middle income.  It does.  Any new housing that can pull people with high incomes out of existing lower-cost rental will help make room in a lower priced building for someone else who can’t afford the luxury options.

If we want lower cost housing, or at least housing prices to stop escalating, we need more of it–where people want to live.

Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.

World Cup Street Celebrations Then and Now

Urbanistas often debate or discuss how to make cities less automobile-centric. Sometimes the discussion becomes an “either-or” dichotomy.  But there are examples where streets can be for cars most of the time, and the city make exceptions on the fly as popular activity dictates.

Last Sunday as the World Cup final went into extra time, people started gathering on Commercial Drive in Vancouver.  As in past years, the crowd was starting to spill into the street for lack of room on the sidewalks in front of the myriad restaurants, cafes and bars offering the game on TV.  The excitement was building as penalty kicks seem to loom, and then Spain scored, to cheers and a few groans from Dutch fans.  Soon, the celebration began for those cheering for Spain.

The police had already shown up, not to stop festivities, but to facilitate them.  With no announcements or prior plans, they had closed a 7 block stretch of Commercial Drive to traffic.  And people danced, juggled soccer balls, and enjoyed mingling.

10 years ago, when I first moved to this neighbourhood, the post-Euro-2000 game celebrations involved cars driving up and down this same street, waving giant flags, honking horns.  The 2002 World Cup was the same. The police kept the crowds on the sidewalks, on the sidewalks, which really meant they had to leave onto side streets as it was crowded.  The road was for cars, people had to use whatever urban space was left.

This time, the street was for people and those in cars had to find a place to park if they wanted to join the fun.  And they did.

What was also really cool about this approach was that instead of being in a silo in a car, people mingled with both strangers and neighbours who had backgrounds from around the world, all having a good time (and no one seemed drunk).

Spontaneous soccer games erupted on the street.  Some drummers offered a samba-salsa beat with flamenco influences and dancing took place.  People in Netherlands shirts joined those in Spanish colours as well as many wearing Serbian, Mexican, Brazilian, Italian or Portuguese jerseys kicking around a ball.

Others sat in chairs sipping their cappuccinos, on the street, watching the show.  Kids road bikes and scooters. The gelato stores did well.

This spontaneous urban event lasted for several hours, and without incident as far as I could tell.

A great example how streets can be for cars and buses most of the time, but become great public spaces for certain occasions.

Do a Jane’s Walk!

 Jane Jacobs was an urban thinker ahead of her time.  When the great thinkers of the day were promoting freeways and auto-centric suburban development, she spotted what was being lost.  To her, the best cities and neighbourhoods were organic, constantly evolving communities, or networks of relationships.  People knew each other and looked out for each other.  Walkability was a key component in her vision of what made a city livable.

One of her famous lines was that to know a city, or to know a neighbourhood, you needed to walk it.

She died just a few years ago, in her adopted home of Toronto.  To honour her, friends in Toronto began the tradition of prompting people to host walks through their neighbourhoods, pointed out what they like, or what Jane might have liked.

In a recent interview that discussed neighbourhoods and Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida offers some reasons why we might love our home area:

So in essence a neighborhood is not just a set of individuals, but a set of relationships. I think that’s right. And the relationships are fluid. Some are longstanding and some you can plug into and play. And the places that enable those relationships to form are the places that do better.

Every time we come back to these neighborhoods that are exciting, that are great, there’s a long history behind them. 

A Jane’s Walk is a chance to learn more of the local history and relationships that made local history.

I’ve attended walks the past two years.  The experience of learning dozens of new things about your own city, and how cities work at the ground level is amazing.  This year I’ll also try the experience of hosting, and sharing some recent history of my own neighbourhood.

Find one in your city, or offer to host one… Click here for Canada or global cities. In the US try this direct link.  They will happen simultaneously across North America and around the world on May 1 and 2, 2010.

Trick or Treat for a Community

Zillow released a “Trick or Treat” Housing Index last week for Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Chicago.  Their goal was to assess where a child could score the most candy with the least amount of walking and in a safe place. As they explained:

 [We used] four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score, and local crime data. Based on those variables, this Index represents neighborhoods that will provide the most candy, with the least walking, and minimum safety risks.

Pricey, wealtheir neighbourhoods generally didn’t score that high because of the amount of walking involved between houses and up lengthy drive ways.  By contrast, higher density neighbourhoods with older housing stock tended to do better.  For Seattle:

Wallingford offers the most bang-for-the-knock on Halloween night. The quirky neighborhood full of old Craftsman bungalows is home to residents of all ages, from retirees and college students, to young families with children. Wallingford has easy access to many restaurants, grocery stores, and theaters along 45th street. The ‘hood scored in the top ten percent for both walkability and density.

Would the Trick-or-Treat index be a great measure of “community” as well.  A safe place that contains a wide swath of the population that is highly walkable sounds like a great urban neighbourhood.

Maybe the Trick or Treat index, more than just walkability, could become something house hunters look for.

What all cities share with Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

The events on the fringes of the Chinese empire this week might sound confusing and exotic.  But their roots are actually quite familiar.

The clashes between Uyghurs (WEE-GARs, a turkik-speaking, Islamic people living in the Chinese state) and the Han Chinese in Urumqi and Kashgar this week presented the ugly side of the ongoing ethnic or cultural evolution that occurs in cities.  

Cities are not static in their economies or ethnic make-up.  They evolve and change as new people and ideas and goods flow through.

This region was not always part of “China.”  It was once a heart of the Silk Routes — a network of pathways that, off-and-on, for about 3000 years allowed for trade between myriad central Asian peoples and Europeans as well as Africans.  Ethnic mixing and migrations were and are a part of that history.  Besides Han and Uyghurs, this region is home to Russians, Tajiks (with striking blond hair and green eyes), the Kyrgyz, and others whose ancestors came to trade, escape, or simply seek opportunity.

More recently, resource-based economic development has resulted in millions of Han Chinese moving to the region, creating a tension with those whose ancestors arrived earlier. With closer linguistic, political and cultural connections to the seats of power, the Han often have the better personal and business networks that allows for higher prosperity in many cases.  (Although some would argue a more sinister plan here — as in Tibet — on the part of the Chinese State, I’ve decided to use “Occam’s Razor” and summarize only what can be observed.)

In any city, individuals, families and cultures from different backgrounds coming together naturally creates tension — sometimes this is good. The edge allows for the creativity that is making cities the economic engines of the 21st century.  But the tension can also result in feelings of being threatened.  Unfortunately, not everyone thrives as cities change and evolve.

Think about the LA Riots in 1992; the arrival of Korean immigrants to a traditionally African-American neighbourhood contributed to the tensions that boiled over.

In France and Germany, which have seen tremendous immigration over the last decades, perceptions of ethnic and economic exclusion have contributed to violent conflict.

Fortunately, in many urban areas around the world, residents have become reasonably adept at getting along and more accepting of each others differences.  Economic prosperity undoubtedly helps.  Indeed, a key challenge for urban leaders in the 21st century may be to ensure that the cultural evolution that naturally occurs in cities and in neighbourhoods serves as a positive force, rather than a negative, destructive one.

Postscript FYI: Much of this came to me while researching schools for my son.  I noticed the history of our neighbourhood school.  It opened 98 years ago serving a population of primarily German and British decent, perhaps with a few Japanese students as well.  By the 1950s the vast majority of students were of Italian origin.  Today, 60% are of East Asian(or partial East Asian) decent although fewer than 30% have English as a Second Language.  My area has gone from a series of Salish settlements, to a British outpost, to a European melting pot, to an Asia-Pacific and global place all in 100 years.  That’s a lot of change to absorb — and yet it happened relatively peacefully.

Urban families after the great reset

As energy becomes expensive and major cities increase their status as economic drivers, families who live in them will inhabit smaller spaces than many do today. Some are already there, and from their lifestyles we can glimpse into the future.

Melanie, her husband and two children live in their 950 square foot condominium in Vancouver’s Yaletown district, adjacent to downtown.  She also runs a pre-and-post-natal fitness (Fit4Two) business from home (although she gives classes and does personal training at local rec centres or outside).  Here are some perspectives on the future, based on their experiences.

Idea #1 – Families of the future valuing time more than space

One main reason Melanie’s family lives in the urban core is to avoid commuting.  If they lived in a suburb, her husband — who works long hours in the film industry — would rarely see the kids between commuting and the job’s hours.  Melanie’s business requires she be near many pending and new moms, and being in Yaletown puts thousands of potential clients within an easy distance to make with a stroller.

Saving time and valuing time as much or more than money or space is becoming a new feature of 21st century life for many young adults.  Although commuting between distant suburban locations and urban cores where the jobs are packed will in the future continue to be possible using various transit and shared options that will emerge, many families will reject this option preferring to focus on the housing option that allows for more quality time together.

Idea #2 – Two bedroom apartments or condos can accommodate a family of four (although some modifications would help)

In the future, although some families will manage to afford single family homes in close proximity to jobs and other needed amenities, more will live in duplexes, triplexes, townhomes and apartment buildings in the bigger, more dynamic cities.

Many families of three of four will live in 2 bedroom condos — so what will that be like?  and what lessons could the architects and developers of future buildings need?

For Melanie’s family, the bedrooms are just that — places to sleep and store your clothes.  They selected their unit in part because the suite maximized space in a well-layed out kitchen-dining-living area.  With Ikea organizing technology in place, the living space offers room for children’s toys; entertaining space for having a few friends over and a vertically-organized home office that partially folds away when not in use.

What isn’t working quite so well for them is the small size of the second bedroom, which must accommodate two children in separate beds.  Bunk beds are not appropriate for children under age 10.  So Melanie is looking into “trundle beds” where one bed pulls out from under the other and tucks away during the day.  A better designed unit for the future family home might offer a second bedroom big enough to accommodate two twin beds.  Maybe furniture makers can get creative as well — how about twin murphy beds?

 Idea # 3 – Families will use creative strategies to avoid over-accumulation of stuff that won’t fit.

Melanie’s general rule: When something new comes home, something else has to go.  This applies to clothes, toys, sports equipment, etc.  Melanie thinks this rule helps kids appreciate what they have and learn that they can’t have everything they want — there are trade offs in life (if you want this, then you won’t be able to have that).  Birthdays and Christmas are focused around receiving one big gift, and one set of (out-of-town) grandparents contributes to a plane ticket fund instead of giving gifts, allowing the whole family to visit at least once per year.

In the future, with fewer families having a basement, garage or spare room into which to dump excess stuff, websites like craigslist and eBay could be even busier as families seek to unload one set of belongings and find others.

#3B – the experience economy rises out of condos

As the children get older, Melanie hopes to shift from giving the kids toys to giving them experiences.

Indeed, many individuals and families are already trying to consume in the experience economy rather than the non-durable goods one, regardless of whether they have kids or live in a condo.  They spend their money on experiences (whether a trip to the spa, having nails done, a fancy dinner, enjoying a $5 latte with a friend, etc.) rather than on lavish belongings if they have to choose.

Families in condos might become a dominant consumer of “experience” rather than what can be purchased at Toys ‘r Us.  (And there might be some great business opportunities in catering to these future families).  I know, or have known, many families who use strategies like this — many young children can understand the choice between receiving lots of toys or getting to go to Hawaii or Disneyland for Christmas.

***

Do you live in a condo? what insight does this give you into future North American families?

What about participating in the experience economy over the non-durable goods one?

Thanks Melanie, for sharing.

Social media and community engagement

Many popular culture analysts noted the decline of community in the later decades of the 20th century.  People seemed to “tune out” and become uninterested in world events, local politics and issues that affected their daily lives.  Some blamed television, others the double-income family combined with longer commutes that left little time to connect with those who lived nearby — and little reason to do so.  Shopping at automobile-centred power centres and supercentres some distances from home combined with working in isolated business parks while carting the kids off to distant private schools would hardly generate any reason to connect with people local to your home.

The 21st century has brought the decline of passive TV watching and the rise of social media.  It has also brought a renewed interest in cities, density and getting out of the automobile, at least occasionally, and connecting at a slower speed.

This combination of citizens living in closer quarters, spending less time in their cars, and more time with their families, friends — and on social media — may be the foundation of a new community structure.

In my neighborhood we have a private Yahoo e-mail group, “Parents in ‘The Area’”  where we share ideas and help answer each others questions about everything from parenting to renting to home renovation dilemmas.  As this group has evolved, what’s interesting is how different the member backgrounds are.  If not for this social media, we might not have otherwise connected in the ways we have.  An excerpt from something I posted to the group as we pondered our raison d’etre last week:

What I really appreciate about the group is the opportunity to converse with people who bring a variety of different — and even diametrically opposed — perspectives to our community. The one thing we have in common is that we are parents, trying to do the best we can.

In today’s “Multi-channel” universe of information, ironically the tendency has been for people to shut out or ignore perspectives that are not their own – you can tune in to your own custom “channel” if you want.  Our group somewhat forces all of us to tune in to many “channels” of information – perspectives — that we otherwise might not have tried to understand.
Just think, within our group we have:

  • Parents who vaccinate, and those who do not, and those who do so selectively
  • Carnivores, vegetarians and vegans
  • People who watch lots of TV, only a little, or none at all
  • Families who generally believe in western medicine, and those who prefer eastern or alternative approaches
  • Families who home school, families who support public education, families who use religious or independent schools
  • Gay families, straight families, single-parent families
  • People who rent their homes and people who own their homes, and people who own homes and rent suites within them
  • People who work in a wide variety of jobs and professions
  • People who prefer to buy most things for their children new, and those that prefer (or need) to buy most things second hand

It is becoming harder to find communities like ours who share in a non-judgmental way.
So we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for what we’ve created.

And, in still thinking about this group, and in how younger generations use social media seamlessly (and more than I do), I can’t help but think that maybe, technology will now lead North Americans back into forging tighter local communities.

Is social media helping you connect with people or businesses where you live?

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