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    Generation X, the group between the boomers and the millennials, has been largely cast aside in the media and marketing world, victims of their generation’s small size and lack of identity. In contrast to the much-discussed boomers and millennials, few have recognized the critical importance of this group to the future of politics, economics, technology and business.

    Gen Xers — defined as aged between 35 and 49 in 2015 — matter because they will be the generation that will run our companies and governments as the boomers, albeit slowly, fade from their long-standing dominance. As millennials struggle to “launch,” the Xers are the group that will be critical to local housing markets, tech development and, perhaps most important, the creation of the next generation of children.

    Far more entrepreneurial than their millennial successors, they also will have the money to shape the economy. An analysis by the Deloitte Center for Financial Services finds that they hold 14 percent of the nation’s wealth, compared to just 4 percent for millennials and 50 percent for the boomers. But by 2030, as the boomers finally start to fade from the picture, Xers increasingly will vie with boomers, accounting for 31 percent of the nation’s wealth, twice the percentage for the millennials.

    Southern California’s Xer challenge

    Southern California needs to focus more on Xers. Unlike the millennials, whose share has been dropping below national norms, our region still retains a higher percentage of Xers than the rest of the country. Yet, their population is being eroded by factors such as high housing prices and weak high-end job creation.

    Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    OK Soda photo by Derek Bruff via Flickr.


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  • 03/27/17--22:33: The Quest for Food Freedom
  • Mariza Ruelas currently faces up to two years in jail in California for the crime of selling ceviche through a Facebook food group. Welcome to the mad world of American food regulation. In Biting the Hands That Feed Us, Baylen Linnekin looks closely at a system that can take pride in a historically safe food supply but that also imposes too many rules that defy common sense.

    Linnekin traces the system’s origins to The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the appalling conditions in Chicago’s slaughterhouses, and to the New Deal’s hyper-regulation of agriculture. Such intrusiveness culminated in the case of Wickard v. Filburn, in which the Supreme Court ruled that Americans don’t even have the right to consume food they grow themselves, on their own land. Food regulation has marched steadily onward ever since.

    While working conditions and food safety improved dramatically thanks to these efforts, the move to regulate all food products according to uniform standards also produced a system with a host of strange rules—such as requiring organic skim milk that is free of additives to be labeled “Non-Grade ‘A’ Milk Product–Natural Milk Vitamins Removed.” Bans on urban agriculture have outlawed backyard chicken coops and front-yard gardens. Seemingly random changes in safety requirements force the shutdowns of businesses with no incidents of contamination or sickened customers. In some jurisdictions, it’s illegal to slice off a sample of cheese or cut the stalk off of lettuce at farmer’s markets. Microbreweries were threatened with having to register as pet-food manufacturers if they wanted to donate their spent grains for animal feed (a long-standard practice even for big breweries). In public parks, foraging of any sort—such as picking wild berries—is often banned.

    Mariza Ruelas made her ceviche at home, which is why she’s in trouble with the law: food-safety mandates have made home production of food for sale, even in small quantities, illegal. You might be in trouble, too, if, say, you contribute a pan of brownies to the bake sale at your child’s school. That’s probably illegal.

    States and localities are starting to push back at this regulatory insanity. Some states have instituted “cottage-food laws” allowing home preparation of small amounts of food for sale in limited venues, such as at farmer’s markets. Wyoming passed a comprehensive Food Freedom Act reducing regulation of food sales, so long as no middleman is involved. Some cities have legalized the raising of chickens or urban beekeeping. But there’s a long way to go.

    For Linnekin, a food-law professor, the goal is to make traditional and “sustainable” agricultural practices legal. Much of what he argues for makes good sense, but there’s another side to the issue. Because so many urban hipsters want to produce (or at least consume) artisanal food products, food law, along with zoning, often serves as their point of entry into the vast regulatory web that smothers so many American businesses. This awareness doesn’t necessarily turn urban epicures into liberty-minded activists, though. Many small-scale organic-food producers and their customers simply want to make their preferred practices legal and easier to practice—while saddling major corporate producers of food with added regulations. In general, food activists aren’t much interested in establishing better rules and then letting the market determine outcomes. Instead, they seek specific outcomes—more composting, for example—and deem any rule that fails to support such goals to be a bad one.

    Linnekin seems somewhat sympathetic to this small-is-better tendency. He wants to eliminate “ag-gag” laws that protect farmers from harassment by activists. He thinks that many food products carry antiquated grading standards and wants to see them changed. But many of these standards have solid rationales. Linnekin objects, for example, to the USDA’s “prime” grade for beef being determined by the level of fat marbling. But fat is the driver of taste, and many small producers of leaner, grass-fed beef sell products that often don’t taste very good. They don’t deserve a “prime” grading.

    While regulations hostile to industrial, mass-scale agriculture—which feeds a global population of 7 billion people—should be avoided, rationalizing archaic and protectionist regulations makes sense. So does exempting small-scale producers from many regulations and embracing a more general “food-freedom” philosophy. As Biting the Hands That FeedUs makes clear, our current food-regulatory approach is too often a theater of the absurd.

    This post original appeared in City Journal on March 15, 2017.

    Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.


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    Here’s an incredibly stupid idea to deal with Portland’s housing affordability problems: Multnomah County proposes to build tiny houses in people’s backyard. The people will get to keep the houses on the condition that they allow homeless people to live in them for five years.

    That’s supposed to be an incentive. For five years, you have to share your yard with a homeless person who may be suffering from a variety of problems, after which you get to keep whatever is left of the tiny home. But as one Portland neighborhood activist points out, what homeless people need is healthcare and social work, not to be warehoused in someone else’s backyard.

    I suspect homeowners are going to be wary of this offer because they will have little control who lives in their yard. Not only would the homeowners be required to maintain the tiny houses while the homeless person or people lived in them, Portland is making it increasing difficult for landlords to evict unwanted tenants.

    Update: Despite my pessimism, 580 homeowners have “inquired about hosting a homeless family in their backyards.” Initially, the county will build four, and if it can raise the funds, it will build as many as 300 more.

    More important, this plan is stupidly expensive. The county estimates that each 220-square-foot tiny house will cost $75,000. That’s $341 per square foot! There are an estimated 3,800 homeless people in Portland, so housing them all this way would cost $285 million. That assumes one person per tiny house; some may house two, but housing people in tiny homes will also attract more homeless people into the area.

    There’s also a not-so-hidden agenda here: “creating a denser, more affordable city.” At least, that’s the plan. The reality is density doesn’t make cities more affordable. In fact, the densest cities tend to be least affordable.

    In Portland, people who build tiny houses in their yards face a huge increase in property taxes. That’s because, under Oregon law, their existing home is taxed at its 1996 value, plus a small annual increase for inflation, while new construction is taxed at today’s value. Thus, a new, 220-square-foot tiny house may be taxed more than the 2,000-square-foot house it shares a lot with.

    Multnomah County says it will “try” to waive property taxes for people willing to accept tiny houses for homeless people in their yards, at least for the five years that homeless people live in them. How generous! Mercy, thy name is Multnomah County! Except really, it’s name is Stupid.

    Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

    Photo: DubbaG [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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    In a new podcast, Sami J. Karam speaks to Nadim Curi, CEO of the anti-crime app CityCop.

    Powered by its successful rollout in Latin America started in 2014 and further boosted by funding from startup accelerator techstars, CityCop has staked a claim to turn its “social platform for community watch” into the global leader in crime reporting and public safety.

    Curi explains:

    What Waze has done for traffic globally, we have done the same for public safety.

    What we are doing at CityCop is to make all of this information [about crime incidents] that today is private or is lost, to make it public. The criminals have always taken advantage of this lack of information. They have always the same modus operandi, in the same areas, at the same hours, against the same unaware people. CityCop is making all of this information public for the people to be much better informed of what is happening.

    FullSizeRender

    Starting in Austin, CityCop plans to expand to San Francisco, Chicago, New York and other cities. Curi’s ultimate ambition is to turn CityCop into a global “Waze against crime”.

    TO HEAR THE PODCAST, CLICK HERE OR ON THE TIMELINE BELOW:


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    In a rare victory for grassroots activists, The New South Wales Supreme Court has blocked the forced local government amalgamation of northern suburban councils Ku-ring-gai and the Shire of Hornsby in Greater Sydney. The Ku-ring-gai Council had challenged the parliamentary order and lost at a lower court level , but as The Daily Telegraph put it “Ku-ring-gai Council has won its appeal against a forced merger with Hornsby Council this morning in a judgment that was highly critical of the State Government delegate and its process.” The Council was also awarded costs.

    This forced amalgamation is just one of a number of mergers ordered by the ruling Liberal-National Coalition government of Premier Gladys Berejiklian. This and other such orders have been challenged in court and, according to the Daily Telegraph: “The Berejiklian government's remaining council merger plans have been thrown into upheaval after the NSW Supreme Court ruled the process used ahead of a proposed merger between Ku-ring-gai and Hornsby Councils did not accord with procedural fairness.”

    Statutory Duty, Disclosure, Public Participation and Procedural Fairness

    In particular, the court indicated concern about a failure of statutory duty, lack of public disclosure and insufficient opportunity for public participation.

    At issue was the recommendation of Delegate Garry West that the forced merger proceed (Delegate West was appointed by the government to make a finding on the government’s forced merger proposal). The Ku-rung-gai Council argued that Delegate West had relied on a merger analysis report by KPMG, a report that the government would not release in public.

    Writing in the opinion, Judge J. A. Basten said: “The Council was right to assert that the delegate could not properly carry out his function of examination without having access to that material..." and found that “that the financial advantages identified by KPMG for the government were a critical element in favour of the merger, but this analysis was not provided to the delegate or public.” Judge Basten concluded that Mr. West had "constructively failed" in his statutory duty of examining the government's merger proposal, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

    In addition, Judge Basten pointed out that "Release of the material was also necessary for public participation in the public inquiry to be meaningful." According to the opinion: “The appellant was denied procedural fairness as the delegate chose to rely on the KPMG analysis, rather than conducting his own assessment of the merger, when the appellant was not in possession of the document in which the analysis was contained.”

    No Amalgamation Based on a Secret Report

    Government News reported Greens Local Government spokesman “Today the Court of Appeal has said the obvious, that it is blatantly unfair to forcibly amalgamate a local council on the basis of a secret report.” (In parliamentary systems, opposition office holders are designated as spokespersons or shadow ministers, replicating the portfolios of the government ministers, who are also legislative members). He added that the decision could “dismantle every single outstanding amalgamation proposal.” He called the decision “an embarrassing blow” for the government’s forced amalgamation program, which he characterized as “unraveling.”

    The Labor Party Opposition Leader Luke Foley expressed similar sentiments, saying “Thank God we have an independent judiciary.”

    Tony Recsei, president of Save Our Suburbs (SOS) NSW, which has opposed the forced mergers, noted that:  “Rational justification for wholesale forced council amalgamations was never provided by the Government.” He added: “The amalgamation “consultation” process was laughable in its duplicity. It was glaringly obvious to anyone who participated that the results had been predetermined.” He characterized the court decision as “… a rare win for the community against a dictatorial government and represents a complete trouncing of underhand bureaucratic manipulation.” Demonstrations have been held to oppose the forced mergers (Photo).



    Photograph courtesy of FOKE (Friends of Ku-ring-gai Environment)

    Still a Threat

    Deputy Premier John Barilaro had demanded two months ago that the Coalition government abandon its forced amalgamation program. His National Party (the Liberal Party’s coalition partner) had recently lost the Legislative Assembly seat of Orange that it had held for 69 years running, a consequence, at least in part of the government’s forced amalgamation program. The National Party has traditionally been strong in the “bush,” including smaller urban areas (such as Orange), outside the major metropolitan areas of Australia. The National Party usually been the coalition partner of the Liberal Party in government at the federal and state level.

    A compromise was reached  such that “country councils” (outside the Greater Sydney area and where the National Party is strong) will not be required to amalgamate. However, a month ago, the government expressed its intention to continue with the Sydney area amalgamations.

    In fact, the government could resurrect the Ku-ring-gai Hornsby forced merger proposal. However, Ku-ring-gai Mayor Jennifer Anderson told the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) that she was “heartened.” She added that “We have had to go to court to get the Government to listen to us and I am seeking a change of heart from the Premier on this issue as a matter of urgency." She cautioned that "If they continue with the merger process, they will be flying in the face of our community and the court."

    Forced Amalgamation: “Fit for the Dustbin?”

    This initiative is the third local government reorganization since 2000 in New South Wales. Like the previous programs, the justification has been anticipated cost savings. Councils were examined for their fiscal sustainability in “Fit for the Future” reviews.

    Greens spokesman Shoebridge questions the justification for amalgamation. In a Greens of Hornsby website article entitled “Fit for the Future, Fit for the Dustbin,” Shoebridge notes that “When amalgamations have been forced on locals in other states like Victoria and Queensland, rates (taxes) have gone up, services have stagnated and residents end up less connected to the councilors who represent them. In Queensland a number of councils have even begun the expensive process of de-amalgamation, with the Queensland Government bearing the cost of this process.” In that state, the Liberal National government won power promising de-amalgamation votes, yet allowed only four referendums out of the 19 councils seeking relief. All four voted to de-amalgamate.

    Repeating History

    If the Ku-ring-gai amalgamation story sounds familiar, it is. In 2000, the government of Quebec undertook a wholesale program of local government amalgamations. Public reaction was so sharp that the government was defeated at the next election, as the opposition Liberal Party promised de-amalgamation votes. Despite its promises, the Liberals, once elected, required de-amalgamation “yes” votes to equal 35 percent of eligible voters, a prohibitive barrier given the typically low turnouts in local government elections. In the end 32 governments voted to de-amalgamate. In the United States, proposals to force local government amalgamations have not received legislative approval in Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois and Ohio.

    The Sydney area consultant savings report is also familiar. In 1997, the Ontario government announced a forced amalgamation of six local governments in the Toronto area. The “megacity” as it was called was, according to an accounting firm report commissioned by the government, to save $300 million annually, which was not achieved, according to University of Western Ontario local governance expert  Professor Andrew Sancton. Despite overwhelming referendum rejections in six of the cities, the government forced the amalgamation.

    Basic Democratic Values

    Ku-ring-gai Mayor Anderson also stressed basic democratic values, the ability of an electorate to control its government, noting that "This merger should not proceed because Ku-ring-gai ratepayers (taxpayers) will be robbed of the means to decide how and where our rates are spent and of any real say in how our local area is managed.

    These are powerful words. The fight for democracy has been waged for at least the 800 years since Magna Carta and progress has been hard won. Forced amalgamations are anti-democratic and a step backward. It would be one thing if the electorate of Ku-ring-gai had determined that it would be best to amalgamate with Hornsby. But there is a big difference between top-down forced amalgamations and amalgamations that arise from the people themselves. Voluntary amalgamations have a better chance of succeeding than those that are forced.

    However, forced amalgamations dilute the voice of voters, and without  their consent. Usually, as in New South Wales, it is argued that larger government units will be more efficient, exercising economies of scale. The reality is all too often that the economies of scale that are actually achieved are only for special interests, not for the people or their pocket books.

    Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

    Photograph: Ku-rin-gai anti-forced amalgamation campaign banner, Photography courtesy of Save Our Suburbs (SOS) NSW.


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  • 03/31/17--22:33: The Shape of Things to Come
  • After several years of traveling around the country in the presence of city planners, economic development officials, elected representatives, engineers, production home builders, professional consultants, and groups of concerned citizens I’ve come to my own personal unified theory of America’s land use future. The short version is that we’ve got the built environment that we have and the overwhelming majority of it isn’t ever going to change much. If you want to know what things will look like in thirty or forty years… look around. That’s pretty much it.

    There’s so much of it… tract homes on cul-de-sacs, suburban office parks, strip malls, big box stores, light industrial parks, self storage facilities, garden apartment complexes… even if society wanted to radically transform the landscape (which is absolutely not the case) it would be a sixty or seventy year endeavor. Personally, I won’t live long enough to see that shift. But business-as-usual isn’t an option either regardless of what most people might prefer. What will change is the way the existing landscape will be valued and inhabited.

    Communities are hitting a financial wall. Current tax revenue is entirely insufficient to cover the ongoing maintenance of municipal infrastructure – and by “infrastructure” I mean public services and staffing levels as well as the physical roads, pipes, and civic buildings. There simply isn’t enough productive private economic activity to support the underlaying public chassis that’s been built since World War II. So we’re in for a great deal of deferred maintenance, failed pension obligations, reductions in services, higher taxes (which will be called “user fees” and “code enforcement”) and ultimately default on public debt. That’s already baked in to the cake almost everywhere.

    There are only two options moving forward. We can build more productive stuff on the existing infrastructure, or we can reduce the amount of infrastructure to come in to balance with the available productive capacity. So we’re going to do both – not necessarily on a voluntary basis. And the results will be unevenly distributed.

    Some places will continue to be maintained pretty much as they are largely by skimming revenue from other locations. Other spots will decline, lose value, become politically and culturally disposable, and be allowed to crumble. Still other districts will intensify and gain value and significance through infill development. I say this with a fair amount of confidence because that’s been the historic pattern for a very long time.

    There are people who advocate for small scale incremental infill development that could double or triple the productive capacity of a place gradually over time. A one story building could become a two story building. A two story building could become a three story building. Small cottages could be built in back gardens. A vacant lot could be filled with a small productive structure with a business on the ground floor and an apartment or two upstairs. It could be intimate and charming like the Norman Rockwell Main Street towns of a previous era. But the current regulatory framework doesn’t permit such a process. Neither does the popular culture that sees such infill as a direct assault on the American Dream. The cost and complexity of navigating multiple opaque and unresponsive bureaucracies is generally greater than the ultimate value of such modest projects. So it’s simply not going to happen.

    Infill development needs to be large, complex, and expensive enough to overcome the administrative and cultural friction. A two hundred unit apartment complex with five stories of structured parking works just fine. It may be wildly out of character with the existing neighborhood. It may load up the area with additional traffic congestion. It may be far too expensive to meet the need for working class housing. It may concentrate ownership in to very few hands. It may be built in an otherwise diffuse suburban landscape where walking and transit are unviable. But it can be built while smaller things can’t. Shrug. Whatever.

    New subdivisions with comfortable attractive middle class homes sprout on the side of the freeway like mushrooms after a good rain. These are pleasant places to live. People like them. They’re profitable to build. Municipal officials embrace growth and development. This is how things are supposed to be.

    A few miles away is yesterday’s version of growth and progress. Property values have declined. Businesses have moved away. The schools have lost their appeal. Municipal revenues have crashed. People and money are disappearing. This isn’t an anomaly. It’s the natural consequence of things playing out to their logical conclusions. This is the shape of things to come.

    John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

    All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo


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    To some progressives, California’s huge endorsement for the losing side for president reflects our state’s moral superiority. Some even embrace the notion that California should secede so that we don’t have to associate with the “deplorables” who tilted less enlightened places to President-elect Donald Trump. One can imagine our political leaders even inviting President Barack Obama, who reportedly now plans to move to our state, to serve as the California Republic’s first chief executive.

    As a standalone country, California could accelerate its ongoing emergence as what could be called “the Republic of Climate.” This would be true in two ways. Dominated by climate concerns, California’s political leaders will produce policies that discourage blue-collar growth and keep energy and housing prices high. This is ideal for the state’s wealthier, mostly white, coastal ruling classes. Yet, at the same time, the California gentry can enjoy what, for the most part, remains a temperate climate. Due to our open borders policies, they can also enjoy an inexhaustible supply of cheap service workers.

    Of course, most Californians, particularly in the interior, will not do so well. They will continue to experience a climate of declining social mobility due to rising costs, and businesses, particularly those employing blue-collar and middle-income workers, will continue to flee to more hospitable, if less idyllic, climes.

    California in the Trump era

    Barring a rush to independence, Californians now must adapt to a new regime in Washington that does not owe anything to the state, much less its policy agenda. Under the new regime, our high tax rates and ever-intensifying regulatory regime will become even more distinct from national norms.

    President Obama saw California’s regulatory program, particularly its obsession with climate change, as a role model leading the rest of the nation — and even the world. Trump’s victory turns this amicable situation on its head. California now must compete with other states, which can only salivate at the growing gap in costs.

    At the same time, foreign competitors, such as the Chinese, courted by Gov. Jerry Brown and others to follow its climate agenda, will be more than happy to take energy-dependent business off our hands. They will make gestures to impress what Vladimir Lenin labeled “useful idiots” in our ruling circles, but will continue to add coal-fired plants to power their job-sapping export industries.

    Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    Photo: By User "Neon Tommy" (https://www.flickr.com/photos/neontommy/8117052872) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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    Shrinking Cities: Understanding Urban Decline in the United States
    By Russell Weaver, Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, Jason Knight, and Amy E. Frazier
    Routledge (2017)

    Cities like Detroit, St. Louis, and Cleveland have lost stunning percentages of their peak population since 1950. Yet these are all in metro areas whose regional populations are much higher than in 1950, even if not at their all time peak high in all of them.

    Some cities like Youngstown have gone so far as to try to plan for shrinkage and a permanently reduced population future. Detroit did something similar with its Detroit Future City plan, though that has subsequently been scrapped.

    How do we think about shrinkage? How do we define a shrinking city? What should shrinking cities do? These are questions that have been swirling around for the decade I’ve been writing about cities here.

    The new academic book Shrinking Cities aims to put some rigor around those questions. The first half of the book is devoted to an examination of shrinkage in the United States. The authors note that any measure designed to identify shrinking cities has a note of the arbitrary about it. The measure they select is population decline of 25% or more over the 40 year period from 1970 to 2010. They look at both census tracts and cities. Surprisingly, they find the shrinking census tracts are very widespread in America, and are on the rise in the Sun Belt. Shrinkage in terms of population loss is not a Rust Belt only phenomenon, though shrinking municipalities as a whole are concentrated in that region.

    The authors look at economic decline separately, examining census tracts where there were increasing levels of concentrated disadvantage (which include include such measures as female headed household, unemployment rate, and low educational attainment as disadvantage indicators). Unsurprisingly, economic decline is more common and more severe in shrinking tracts, though there is not complete overlap. They find that social distress is more associated with economic decline whereas physical distress (e.g., vacant housing) is associated more with population decline.

    After a presentation of the data, the book reviews various theories of what causes shrinkage and decline such as suburbanization. One that was particularly interesting was the social capital theory. Is low social capital associated with shrinkage and economic decline? It is. One of the indicators of social capital is homeownership. The book observes:

    In other words, relative to tracts that shrank and did not decline, tracts that experienced coupled shrinkage and decline witnessed a substantial drop in homeownership rates that cannot be explained by chance alone. If homeownership is a useful indicator of social capital, then his result implies that social capital may have decreased in these shrinking-declining tracts as well. Thus, tracts that are able to keep their homeownership rates steady during population shrinkage may be more resistant to decline via social capital.

    The second half of the book looks more at potential strategies for countering or adapting to change. These include various pro-growth policies, “rightsizing”, regional government, community development initiatives, etc. While some of these have had success in isolated cases, none of them have had systemic, replicable success. This makes for a bit of depressing reading. As one person told me about this aspect of the book, “Shrinking cities theory is at a dead end.”

    Because of its academic nature, and high price tag, this book is not for everyone. But policy developers in shrinking areas should certainly ground themselves in this summary of shrinking cities research and academic theories found in it.

    Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

    Photo of Brush Park, Detroit by Stephen Harlan, CC BY-SA 2.0


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  • 04/04/17--22:45: The End of the Asian Era
  • For the past 40 years, the Pacific Rim has been, if you will, California’s trump card. But now, in the age of President Donald Trump and decelerating globalization, the Asian ascendency may be changing in ways that could be beneficial to our state.

    Rather than President Barack Obama’s famous “pivot to Asia,” it now might be more accurate to speak of Asians’ pivot to America. Once feared as a fierce competitor, East Asia is facing an end to its period of relentless growth, and now many interests appear to find that the United States offers a more secure, and potentially lucrative, alternative.

    This era reflects profound changes in East Asia’s prospects. They increasingly are coping with many of the demographic, social and economic challenges that have bedeviled the West since the 1970s — competition from cheaper countries, technological obsolescence, a demoralized workforce and diminishing upward mobility. The verve of the late 20th century is being supplanted by the anxieties of the early 21st.

    Demographic decline

    Forty years ago, overpopulation constituted the big issue facing East Asia. Governments from Singapore to Korea and, most importantly, China, imposed anti-natalist policies, fearing that their economic success would be overcome by a tide of new citizens. Today, East Asia confronts the world’s most stagnant demography.

    By 2030, according to the United Nations, Japan, still the world’s third-largest economy, will have more people over 80 than under 15, and, by 2050, it is expected to see its population fall by 15 percent. Many of the other Asian “tigers,” which followed Japan’s model, are saddled with a fertility rate so low that, over the next 35 years, they will join the island nation among the most elderly nations on earth.

    East Asia’s demographic crisis will hit critical mass once China, the planet’s second-largest and most dynamic large economy, feels the full impact of its super-low fertility rate. By 2050, China’s population will have a demographic look like ultraold Japan’s today — but without the higher affluence levels of its Asian neighbor to pay for all of the retirees.

    Technology and the challenge of Trumpism

    The rise of the Pacific Rim was driven, in large part, by manufacturing growth. Following the model of Japan, Asian countries grew by keeping imports out and building enormous surpluses of manufactured goods. The resulting imbalances were accepted by American administrations even when exacerbated by mercantilist policies directed against our own producers.

    The acceptance of such an arrangement ended in 2016 with the election of economic nationalist Donald Trump. But the new trade environment also includes the effective capture of the Democratic Party by elements close to Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, now America’s most popular politician. Sanders is fiercely skeptical on free trade, and his candidacy even forced Hillary Clinton, a long-time globalist, to back protectionist policies.

    Trump’s proposals to match China’s import fees and to hector companies into keeping jobs in the United States represent a huge threat to the mercantilist Asian economic model. This, at a time when new automation technology, cheaper energy and rising wage rates also are persuading Asian producers to shift production to the United States.

    Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    Photo: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Donald Trump) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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    Rural America is taking a beating in the news. Part of it is deserved. I grew up in rural Indiana and am shocked at some of what is going on there: severe hard drug problems, HIV outbreaks, serious crime, etc.

    Things are a long way from when I was a kid there in the 70s and 80s and people not only left their doors unlocked, they left their keys in the car.

    While I don’t want to minimize the challenges facing rural America, there’s a lot that has flat out gotten better since I first moved to Harrison County in first grade around 1976.

    The county where I grew up got a casino that spins off huge amounts of cash. So it’s not the norm. But even excluding everything that happened after the casino arrived, here are seven ways life has gotten better there.

    1. Water service. I laugh when urbanites brag about watering their flowers with runoff they caught in their “rain barrel.” That’s what we drank growing up. No city water service was available, so you had no choice but to dig a well or have a cistern. We had a cistern that was filled with rainwater from our roof. In your cistern raw low, there was an actual industry of people who would come refill it from a tanker truck. Today, people where I grew up have access to water service if they want it.

    2. Trash service. Similar to water service, there was no public or commercial trash pickup when I was a kid. You had to throw food scraps to animals and burn your trash in a 55 gallon drum. When it filled up with tin cans and the like, or if you needed to dispose of a larger item like a TV, lots of people had their own dumps on their property. Today you can get commercial trash pickup if you want it.

    3. Private telephone lines. Believe it or not, when I was a kid we had a party line. That means multiple families shared the same phone line. If you needed to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and find out if your neighbors where using the line before dialing. You couldn’t get a private line unless somebody who had one died first. Somewhere along the way, the phone company put in an upgrade and you could get a private phone line. (On the downside, it’s no longer possible to dial people in town using just four digits anymore).

    4. Paved roads. The road we lived on was gravel when I first moved there. Most roads in the county were paved, but quite a few were still gravel. Today the roads are all in amazing shape because of the casino, but even before then my road and others were paved using a technique called “chip and seal.” Basically this involves spraying some kind of tar on the road, then covering it in fine gravel, which is compacted into a paving surface. No more massive clouds of dust.

    5. Satellite TV. When I was in high school in the 80s, cable was starting to get big. People where I lived might have wanted their MTV, but they couldn’t get it. There was maybe cable TV in the county seat (I’m not sure). But most folks were stuck with 4-5 over the air channels showing I Love Lucy reruns. Today, thanks to satellite TV, people in rural America have access to every channel you can get in town.

    6. Internet Service. The web hadn’t even been invented back in the 70s and 80s. The internet was a small, government and academic network. Today, there’s pretty wide broadband availability through either some kind of DSL type service or satellite internet. My father has satellite internet and it works pretty good if you ask me.

    7. Amazon, Apple and Netflix. Speaking of the internet, this provided access to everything from designer clothing to pretty much every book ever published. The days of needing to be in a big city with a cool indie record store in order to get good tunes is over. You can now get access to products people in Chicago couldn’t dream of when I was a kid.

    Actually, I could list a whole bunch more things besides these, but I want to be sure not to include anything that might have come from casino money. And I see all kinds of interesting things that were probably never there before in other small towns I visit, such as good coffee shops.

    Not that long ago you were in a sense cut off from the world if you lived in a rural area. Today that’s not the case in many places. I’m not going to claim life is perfect in these areas. They have big, serious challenges. But in a number of ways life has just plain gotten better in rural America in the past two to three decades.

    Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian, Forbes.com, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

    Photo: The house Aaron grew up in.


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    For the past four decades, technology has improved nearly all aspects of our life - except for the physical land development patterns of our cities. The 1960's suburban pattern, still in use today, is unsustainable. However, the 'architectural' answer to the 'planning' problem of sprawling subdivisions has been to simply go backwards to the gridded past.

    Without a high degree of architectural and landscaping detail, this model, known as New Urbanism, does not work. As such, there are few (if any) affordable New Urbanist non-subsidized developements. The Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) boasts of their success in gentrification, but instead of reinventing 'design' to address the problems, the architect's answer is to make site plan function as if it as a simplistic rectangular floor plan.

    The CNU objective is to create a pedestrian oriented society and do everything possible to do away with car ownership. To combat suburban sprawl, they attack those who invest in suburban homes even though they represent 80 percent of the housing market growth. Even with the nearly three decades New Urbanists have promoted this singular solution, there are relatively few actual CNU projects.

    One of the largest groups of CNU followers are university professors who teach young, impressionable minds that suburbia is terrible and only high density is the answer. These students go deep into debt thinking that they will be part of a vast new era of change, however, when they look for employment in the real world, they are miserably unprepared. The technical skills taught in Urban Planning and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) revolve around software and training supplied by ESRI, and for architectural or civil engineering students, most likely an AutoCAD targeted module like Civil3D or Revitt, the current industry-leading software products.

    To understand why this is a problem, I will share experiences with graduate students hired as interns, not mentioning the school. I am based in Minneapolis.

    I interviewed a graduate from the Urban Studies program a few years ago who did not understand what an easement or a right-of-way was. He had no classes on how a plan or plat was put together, along with no design courses, no knowledge of surveying or civil engineering which is the basis of all redevelopment and growth. I decided to take on the challenge and hired the student to teach him basic things you would think would be taught to a graduate student.

    A few months ago, I took an intern (same university) graduating this spring in GIS and mapping. Again, you would think the basic premise of mapping would be an intricate knowledge of surveying and subdivision planning, at least. But nay, nay - none was taught. I asked, why a career in GIS? He said that his first intention was to become a civil engineer, but they immediately placed him in the mathematically demanding structural side of civil engineering, which proved too much for him. Instead of having a dedicated civil 'site' engineering course with simplistic math to learn, he made the choice to become a GIS technician. Again, going massively into student debt. These interns were both taught a targeted social engineering agenda that ignored where most of the growth was, and will continue to be, the suburbs.

    Four decades ago, before software and New Urbanism existed, students were taught design. Slowly, a metamorphosis occurred from a hands-on approach to one where the designer is limited by the functions of the technology being taught. I began developing software four decades ago and within a decade began to realize software was not actually about design. It is about how fast the end user can produce that architectural or civil engineering plan, which is slowly but surely destroying design.

    This is why it seems like every new apartment building or commercial center looks as if the same architect was used - in a way it is, because the architect is more software, not a person. Today's CAD and GIS software has reduced design to replicable keystrokes in predetermined software functions, which dumbs down design and promotes the cookie-cutter monotony typical of all suburban subdivisions and urban redevelopments.

    For the past 26 years, in order to remedy this situation, our studio developed pioneering technology enabled methods to design over 1,000 land developments in 47 states and 18 nations to date. These methods have a demonstrated average reduction of infrastructure by 27 percent, without a density loss or reduced existing regulatory minimums, as compared to conventional design methods.

    With the New Urbanism taught in universities, we have seen examples where infrastructure is reduced by 60 percent. Reduced right-of-way can provide a density increase without sacrificing space and privacy - valued by the suburban dweller. The increased open space allows better models for vehicular and pedestrian connectivity and efficiency, as well as a coordination of architecture and site design to enhance views, curb appeal, value and livability, while reducing environmental impacts.

    By curing the ills of suburbia we deflate the CNU agenda, so it is no surprise few professors embrace the reinvention of planning, both in design and in regulation writing.

    A dozen years ago we began investing heavily in creating a new form of technical solution. Software in the form that exists today simply automates past methods. We needed to develop a product that would educate the advanced design methods and not rely on the ‘paint by numbers’ solution that limits possibilities. Software is a tool. The saying – “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”, is true of the CAD and GIS products being taught. We needed to teach our market-proven design discoveries and develop a completely different kind of a tool that would not limit the art of design.

    As the architect Frank Gehry stated: “Creativity is about play and a kind of willingness to go with your intuition. It's crucial to an artist.” Art cannot happen with the current 'paint by numbers' approach. Nor can growth be functional when graduates today have only a singular skill – either architecture, engineering, mapping, or social engineering (i.e. what used to be known as planning). Design must function better, and without a general knowledge of all these skills there cannot be progress for the masses who cannot afford nor desire to live in overly dense gentrified neighborhoods.

    To tear down this roadblock to sustainability, design education and technology needed to merge engineering, surveying, architecture, and planning to eliminate the barriers to sustainability in the current uncollaborative design industry. This is why we called our new system LandMentor.

    Planning commissions routinely approve and deny submittals by developers in the exact same form as 60 years ago – a two dimensional plan projected on a screen. To solve this problem we incorporated the first application using virtual reality for public land development approval which harnesses video gaming that can be mastered in minutes, eliminating the high costs and complexity of CAD and GIS that discourage 3D use. No longer will planning commissions and council members need to imagine what the development will look like when completed – with VR they will see and feel it.

    Students spend years learning complex CAD and GIS technology that have made these software giants billions of dollars. There is little time left for the students to learn how to be leaders in design and decision making. Our all-inclusive core system (no modules or options) eliminated cumbersome commands harnessing a patented user interface. Our goal was to educate the use of software, the land development process, innovative design methods, as well as the use of 3D and VR, in less than two weeks.

    To enter a market saturated with CAD and GIS software is a daunting and seemingly impossible task. A few months ago I came across PlanningTank.com, a blog frequented by urban study and GIS students who were complaining that their education was not going to empower them to change the world. I contacted this group and asked them, what if we could provide the technology and training that would change the world? What if we provided this system (marketed at the time for $50,000 a seat) exclusively to students at no charge for a one year license? What if we provided a second free year to the top 33% of the students who demonstrated the most dedication to learn and experiment?

    Today, through PlanningTank.com, we hope to create a grassroots movement that will empower the future leaders of growth to make sustainability something real. Students in urban studies, civil engineering, surveying, planning, architecture, landscape architecture, real estate, and construction have a single system to learn that can replace or supplement other technologies. Those who dedicate the time and effort will not need to go further into debt and will be highly desirable and functional as they enter the employment marketplace.

    Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are rhsdplanning.com and LandMentor.com


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    There’s a certain amount of nostalgia these days for 1950’s suburbs when men were men and ladies mopped linoleum floors in white pumps and pearls. I’m not entirely sure that world ever really existed precisely the way it was portrayed on black and white television, but we seem to want it to be true.


    Here are examples of the most common version of 1950’s suburban homes. Soldiers returning from World War II eagerly bought them with heavily subsidized mortgages. They were based on the Levittown model of modest mass produced houses stamped out by the tens of thousands in potato fields all across North America. 875 square feet. Three small bedrooms. One bath. A little eat in kitchen. No garage. No air conditioning. And this kind of home was a spectacular improvement over the accommodations most families had experienced during the Great Depression of the 1930’s and wartime rationing of the 1940’s.

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    But by today’s standards these homes are often considered substandard. In fact, in many communities homes like these are now illegal to build because they’re so cheap and unimpressive that they might attract “the wrong element.” This subdivision has been in decline for years. The manufacturing jobs that once supported these families dried up long ago. The next generation who managed to get university degrees and work their way up the economic food chain moved to more exclusive locations farther away from the old city center. The population of this tract has contracted by 17% since the 2000 census. Today the largest segment of the remaining population in this neighborhood earns $10,000 or less per year. Many are elderly pensioners or people on public assistance. Some of these homes languish on the market and eventually sell for as little as $25,000. Homes in better condition consistently sell for $50,000 to $60,000 – largely because banks won’t write mortgages for less.

    If you take a ten minute drive out along the aging 1950’s commercial corridors that compliment these residential subdivisions you quickly discover the scope of the problem. The most common criticism of this environment is that it’s soul crushingly ugly. The presumed remedy is to make it “pretty” by planting flowers, mandating more attractive signage, and flying American flags everywhere. There’s a concerted effort to replace the dead drive-thru burger joints and empty muffler shops with shiny new drive-thru burger joints and muffler shops. But ugliness isn’t the problem and newness isn’t any kind of solution.

    Insolvency is the problem. This landscape doesn’t generate enough value to support the required infrastructure that supports it. The majority of the land along this commercial strip is surface parking lots, landscaped berms, and storm water retention ponds. None of that pays taxes, employs people, or adds value to the town. The best discount tire shop in the world can’t spin off enough revenue to carry the public burden of suburban roads, sewers, water systems, schools, police, and so on. Ugly is just the icing on the cake.

    But then I discovered this bit of Dwell Magazine style new construction. The fashionable Mid Century Modern lines are a kind of Walter Gropius meets Mies Van Der Rohe meets Frank Lloyd Wright homage to Mamie Eisenhower’s bygone Atomic Ranch America with all the latest “green” bells and whistles. So why did someone spend so much money on this property in this location? Well…

    It’s a peculiar sweet spot if you’re paying attention. The schmaltzy 1950’s tract homes are built right on the edge of an old 1890’s neighborhood. When the subdivision was new people were eager to escape the cramped apartments and run down housing stock of traditional urbanism and reveled in the privacy, personal space, and greenery of the fresh suburban living arrangement. They drove away from Main Street on the newly widened highways toward a glorious Jiffy Lube and Dairy Queen future. Meanwhile, the old neighborhood suffered institutional neglect and was abandoned to slumlords and marginalized minority populations for decades.

    Today there’s a renewed appreciation for historic districts. The economic and cultural pendulum is swinging back again, particularly among post college Millennials. The center of this traditional neighborhood is a five minute bicycle ride from those cheap 1950’s tract homes. As prices for venerable properties rise and availability tightens the little tract homes may seem a lot more viable. This is especially true as Millennials begin to have children and start looking for affordable property close to civilization, but with a little patch of garden. Zoning regulations and building codes make it almost impossible to alter existing homes in the older neighborhood. But the small homes and large lots of the suburban subdivision are significantly easier to add on to and modify. These homes can turn away from the depressing sprawl along the highway and turn back toward Main Street. Given enough time and incremental investment this could be one of the more desirable places to live in the years to come.

    And there’s one more aspect to these homes that I find particularly appealing. There’s a significant amount of land that lends itself to serious gardening and a conspicuous lack of Home Owners Association rules and regulations. Combined with the close-in location and genuinely affordable price point these homes are ideal for varying degrees of suburban homesteading. This sort of thing may seem peculiar to most people at the moment, but it could be a prominent selling feature in the future. Time will tell.

    John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

    All photos by Johnny Sanphillippo


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    California may never secede, or divide into different states, but it has effectively split into entities that could not be more different. On one side is the much-celebrated, post-industrial, coastal California, beneficiary of both the Tech Boom 2.0 and a relentlessly inflating property market. The other California, located in the state’s interior, is still tied to basic industries like homebuilding, manufacturing, energy and agriculture. It is populated largely by working- and middle-class people who, overall, earn roughly half that of those on the coast.

    Over the past decade or two, interior California has lost virtually all influence, as Silicon Valley and Bay Area progressives have come to dominate both state politics and state policy. “We don’t have seats at the table,” laments Richard Chapman, president and CEO of the Kern Economic Development Corporation. “We are a flyover state within a state.”

    Virtually all the polices now embraced by Sacramento — from water and energy regulations to the embrace of sanctuary status and a $15-an-hour minimum wage — come right out of San Francisco central casting. Little consideration is given to the needs of the interior, and little respect is given to their economies.

    San Francisco, for example, recently decided to not pump oil from land owned by the city in Kern County, although one wonders what the new rich in that region use to fill the tanks of their BMWs. California’s “enlightened” green policies help boost energy prices 50 percent above those of neighboring states, which makes a bigger difference in the less temperate interior, where many face longer commutes than workers in more compact coastal areas.

    The new Bantustans

    Fresno, Bakersfield, Ontario and San Bernardino are rapidly becoming the Bantustans — the impoverished areas designed for Africans under the racist South African regime — in California’s geographic apartheid. Poverty rates in the Central Valley and Inland Empire reach over a third of the population, well above the share in the Bay Area. By some estimates, rural California counties suffer the highest unemployment rate in the country; six of the 10 metropolitan areas in the country with the highest percentage of jobless are located in the central and eastern parts of the state. The interior counties — from San Bernardino to Merced — also suffer the worst health conditions in the state.

    This disparity has worsened in recent years. Until the 2008 housing crash, the interior counties served, as the Kern EDC’s Chapman puts it, as “an incubator for mobility.” These areas were places that Californians of modest means, and companies no longer able to afford coastal prices, could get a second shot.

    But state policies, notably those tied to Gov. Jerry Brown’s climate jihad, suggests Inland Empire economist John Husing, have placed California “at war” with blue-collar industries like homebuilding, energy, agriculture and manufacturing. These kinds of jobs are critical for regions where almost half the workforce has a high school education or less.

    Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    Photo: Michael Patrick, CC License.


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    With little fanfare, the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) released its fourth quarter 2016 ridership report last week. When ridership goes up, the lobby group usually issues a big press release ballyhooing the importance of transit (and transit subsidies). But 2016 ridership fell, so there was no press release.

    The report showed that light-rail ridership grew by 3.4 percent, probably because of the opening of new light-rail lines such as Seattle, where the opening of the University line increased ridership by 60 percent. In the past, light-rail ridership has grown with the addition of new lines, but the number of passengers per mile of light rail has fallen, indicating diminishing returns to new rail construction.

    Commuter-rail ridership grew by 1.6 percent, mostly due to growth in New York City. Trolley bus ridership grew by 1.8 percent, almost all of which was in San Francisco. Demand-response (paratransit) grew by 0.7 percent.

    The two most important modes, however, both declined: heavy rail fell by 1.6% and buses by 4.1 percent. Since these two modes together carry 86 percent of transit riders, their decline swamped the growth in other modes. “Other,” which includes ferries, monorails, and people movers, also fell by 0.2 percent.

    In some cases, the decline in bus ridership more than made up for increases in rail ridership. Phoenix light-rail ridership grew by 10.6 percent, but for every light-rail rider gained, Phoenix transit lost nearly four bus riders. Los Angeles light-rail ridership grew by 8.7 percent, but for every light-rail rider gained, Los Angeles lost nearly six bus riders. Ridership on Nashville’s Music City Star grew by 2.6 percent, but the city lost more than 30 bus riders for every new rail rider. Denver opened a new rail line to the airport but lost more than 1-1/2 bus riders for every rail rider gained. Charlotte lost more than 15 bus riders per new rail rider, while Portland lost nearly 2 bus riders per new light-rail rider.

    Other major rail systems couldn’t even record gains. Washington’s Metrorail fell by 10.4 percent; Atlanta fell by 4.7 percent; and the biggest shock of all, New York City subways fell by 0.8 percent. Heavy-rail ridership also feel in in Baltimore (-13.2%), Chicago (-1.3%), Miami (-3.8%), and Philadelphia (-4.5%), among other places.

    Ridership on Boston’s aging subway lines fell by 0.2 percent. As in Washington, the Boston subway is experiencing maintenance problems, including smoke in the tunnels. MBTA has ordered new rail cars, one of which was put on display this week. As columnist Teresa Hanafin noted on Tuesday in the Boston Globe,

    Governor Charlie Baker and state transpo and T officials tour the new Orange Line trains at noon in Medford. The new cars are terrific: They come equipped with sneakers that riders can borrow when the trains break down and they have to walk to the next station, paperbacks to read during the daily delays, hair dryers so riders can help T workers warm up the tracks during cold weather, tasers to ward off gropers, vomit bags, nose plugs, hand sanitizer, and cheese vending machines so riders can feed the rats. Isn’t technology great?

    Light-rail ridership declined in, among other places, Buffalo (-6.1%), Cleveland (-4.7%), Dallas (-1.7%), Minneapolis (-0.2%), Philadelphia (-6.0%), Pittsburgh (-4.3%), St. Louis (-4.6%), and Sacramento (-3.5%). Commuter-rail ridership fell in Albuquerque (-7.7%), Austin (-3.5%), Dallas-Ft. Worth (-6.1%), Los Angeles (-4.3%), Maryland (-1.9%), Miami (-1.6%), Orlando (-8.5%), and Philadelphia (-5.9%), among other places.

    Salt Lake City has been getting more federal transit funding per capita than any other urban area, but the region seems to be losing its bet on light rail and commuter rail. Except for paratransit, every mode of transit in the region declined. The same thing happened in Dallas-Ft. Worth, which has built more light rail than any region in the country. Transit in San Jose, home of one of the nation’s worst-managed transit agencies, took a real nosedive, losing 10.0 percent of light-rail riders and 8.5 percent of bus riders.

    APTA will no doubt blame these declines on low gasoline prices. Prices for regular gasoline in 2016 averaged $2.14, about 12 percent less than 2015’s $2.43. Prices in 2016 were also less variable, which might have given people more confidence in driving. Perhaps more important, per capita incomes grew by 3.5 percent, which probably contributed more to near-record auto sales than low gas prices (though the low fuel prices influenced people’s choices of what vehicles to buy).

    The transit industry bills itself as providing necessary transportation for low-income riders and alternative transportation for choice riders. Whether because of low gas prices, rising incomes, or growing shared-car services, low-income commuters are buying cars and higher-income travelers are making a choice not to use transit. In the face of these choices, transit agencies that want to spend hundreds of millions or billions on fixed-guideway transit, either rail or dedicated bus lanes, are wasting peoples’ money.

    Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute specializing in land use and transportation policy. He has written several books demonstrating the futility of government planning. Prior to working for Cato, he taught environmental economics at Yale, UC Berkeley, and Utah State University.

    Photo: Wade Rockett, CC License.


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    Time magazine’s 2016 Person of the Year was elected president, as the magazine’s headline writer waggishly put it, of the “divided states of America.”

    Donald Trump did not, of course, cause America’s long-standing divisions of class, culture, education, income, race, and politics, which have been baked into our geography and demography for a long time. But he has certainly brought them into stark relief. As the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt remarked, “We have to recognize that we’re in a crisis, and that the left-right divide is probably unbridgeable. … Polarization is here to stay for many decades, and it’s probably going to get worse, and so the question is: How do we adapt our democracy for life under intense polarization?”

    The answer lies not in enforcing uniformity from left or right but in embracing and empowering our diversity of communities. The best way to do that is by shifting power away from our increasingly dysfunctional federal government and down to the local level, where partisan differences are more muted and less visible, and where programs and policies can actually get things done.

    This is hardly the first time the United States have been so divided. Yet with the exception of the Civil War, America has always been able to surmount its differences and change as needed over time. Often the most powerful and lasting innovations—from both the left and right—have percolated up to the national level from the grassroots politics of state and local governments, the places Justice Louis Brandeis famously called “the laboratories of democracy.”

    Far from promoting unity, centralizing power at the national level drives us further apart. This is something that the Founders recognized at the very outset of the American experiment when they designed a federalized system, and it is very much in tune with our current national mood. Almost half (49 percent) of Americans view the federal government as “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens,” according to a 2015 Gallup poll. And nearly two-thirds (64 percent) believe that “more progress” is made on critical issues at the local rather than the federal level, according to a separate 2015 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll.

    The issue isn’t just the dysfunction of our national government, but how we can best and most efficiently address our economic needs and challenges. The United States is a geographically varied place. No top-down, one-size-fits-all set of policies can address the very different conditions that prevail among communities. Back when he was governor, Bill Clinton understood that “pragmatic responses” by local governments to key social and economic issues were critical in “a country as complex and diverse as ours.”

    Until recently, local empowerment was mostly a theme of the right, for example when Yuval Levin characterized President Obama’s use of executive orders as intrusions on local rights. Now some progressives, horrified about the orders that might come down from a Donald Trump administration, are also seeing the light. Progressives have not always been hostile to local control, as anyone who’s studied the grassroots radical movements of the 1960s well knows. But now a growing chorus of them, including Benjamin Barber and Bruce Katz, are on board with the idea. Indeed, strange times make for strange bedfellows, and we have come to a pass where conservatives and progressives can work together to reinvigorate our federalist state.

    The United Kingdom, long a highly-centralized country, has been making moves in this direction—even before the Brexit vote showed widespread opposition to meddling from an even more distant government in Brussels. In 2015, a blue-ribbon panel of British business leaders, policymakers, economists, and urbanists outlined four key steps to empower cities, including shifting decision-making authority from the national government to cities and metropolitan areas; giving cities greater tax and fiscal authority; placing city leaders on national representative bodies and giving them a permanent seat on the national cabinet; and creating new mechanisms to coordinate major investments in infrastructure, talent, and economic development across metro areas. We would be wise to follow their cue.

    It is time for American mayors and community leaders—from small towns, suburbs and midsized ‘burgs to great metropolitan capitals like New York City, LA, and Chicago to press for a similar devolution of power. Such a strategy recognizes both the advantages that come from local innovation and problem solving and the substantial variations in local capabilities and needs. This need for devolution and local empowerment does not just apply to the federal government; it applies to the relationship between the states and municipalities as well. A greater recognition of local differences may be particularly helpful for suburbs, which often have little voice in regional decision-making compared to either big city mayors or the rural and small town interests that dominate many statehouses.

    In the America that emerged after the Second World War, unity of purpose was the watchword. In the more geographically-varied world of today, it makes sense to allow for a greater variation of policy approaches. Rather than pursuing a single vision of “national greatness,” it’s time for us to embrace and empower the country’s wondrous local diversity of cities, suburbs and communities of all kinds.

    Vive le difference!

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    Richard Florida is author of The New Urban Crisis, University Professor at the University of Toronto, Distinguished Visiting Fellow at NYU, and editor-at-large of The Atlantic’s CityLab.


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    Self-driving, automated cars are coming. There will be teething pains in many forms: Some people will want highly automated vehicles while others will fear them. Some will be privately owned, and others will be taxis and shuttles for use by different people every day.

    What’s largely unappreciated yet important is that leaders in urban regions need to prepare for two separate, competitive streams of vehicle automation. One stream lets automation assist the driver. A second stream has no driver. Not recognizing the distinction can result in confused predictions and ineffective public policy.

    Stream 1, the advanced self-driving car that still has a human driver at the wheel, will be in auto dealerships around 2020. Early innovative versions in high end cars, such as Tesla with Autopilot, or Volvo with Pilot Assist, can be purchased now. In the early 2020s, driver assistance technology in all price ranges will be astonishing, making driving on limited-access highways safer, more comfortable, and safely supportive of a lower but still mindful focus of attention while operating a car. On urban streets with crossings, signals, left turns, driveways, double parking, bicycles, and pedestrians, automated driving will arrive later.

    Sophisticated assistance to drivers is mostly what vehicle automation represents for the next decade: cruise control on steroids. Automatic, radar-activated braking will reduce collisions with pedestrians, bicycles, and other motor vehicles. Making collisions impossible is today’s engineering goal as older cars are retired from the consumer fleet.

    The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) has already found that today’s very early versions of front crash prevention systems lead to insurance claim rates that are 10 to 16 percent lower for vehicles equipped with both driver alerting and automated braking, and 7 to 22 percent lower for vehicles equipped with a warning system only.

    Stream 1 automation for many more years will still require that a human driver remain awake and responsible for the inevitable situations that automated control fails to handle, such as new roadway sinkholes that electronic maps and in-car sensors do not notice and behavior of other motorists that is unusual, sudden, and irrational.

    However, levels of driver distractions like those that now commonly occur –-- looking away from the road for over two seconds, for example --- will be more safely tolerated in future semi-automated cars. This level of distraction is so pervasive a human condition, indeed, that meeting zero fatality goals will be impossible without robotic autonomy that compensates for the error of insufficient driver attention. Rear-end collisions and drifting out of lane---commonplace with today’s smart phone distractions---are going to be snuffed out via automated driver assistance as older cars are retired from service.

    Stream 1 promotes continued vehicle ownership, and is not particularly disruptive to existing patterns of vehicle use. It’s merely a nicer version of your current car. Government oversight of motor vehicle safety should not constrain, but rather encourage the roll out of the new safety features.

    The current regulatory framework can be successfully managed within existing processes of government departments of transportation, vehicle and operator licensing authorities, and urban planners. In general, instead of new regulations, only fine-tuning of today’s rules is needed.

    Stream 2---the completely automated car---is not a consumer purchase now and may never be. Having no driver is its essence. The fully automated driverless vehicle will inevitably evolve toward these vehicles having commercial and other institutional owners for the purpose of providing on-demand ride service for any passengers, with or without a drivers’ license. Passengers would have no responsibility for operating the vehicle, like with a bus or taxi today, but now without a human driver.

    Stream 2 represents a widening path of disruption in automobility already begun by the likes of Uber and Lyft, Car2Go and ReachNow. This disruption will decisively arrive in the form of cars and mini-buses without a steering wheel and foot pedals.

    To get into service quickly and safely, the first street-legal Stream 2 versions will be traveling on limited, pre-defined routes on public streets and roads with government regulatory clearances following months of planning. In what’s called by the U.S. Federal Government a limited “operational design domain,” these vehicles will provide new opportunities for local mobility. Dozens of local officials throughout the first world’s urban regions have already begun to discuss with consultants and vendors where and how Stream 2 services would be usefully deployed.

    Government oversight should not discourage deployment of automated vehicles without drivers. Rather it should accelerate the potential for reducing the percentage of single occupant vehicles (SOVs) on streets in all kinds of low speed environments, from congested areas within the densest city centers to suburban residential areas where public transit is now impractical.

    Uber’s semi-robotic taxis in Pittsburgh and Arizona are still Stream 1 technologies, but are trying to make the jump to Stream 2. They are beginning with drivers in the usual position keeping watch on not-quite-ready automation systems, and who are always ready to take over control. So far, human driver intervention remains frequent, around once per mile on average.

    The future date for successful transition of early trial semi-robotic deployments to completely driver-less operation on even a small portion of a metropolitan street grid is uncertain –-- although several manufacturers promise by the early 2020s. Operating a region-wide commercial service without drivers may take years of testing and safety certification. Slow-moving mini-bus shuttles staying under 25 mph in a curb lane are easiest to deploy first, and are being tested already in Asia and Europe. A limited version is just now being tested in Las Vegas ahead of passenger service said to be coming within months.

    Stream 2 requires a combination of impeccable up-to-date digital mapping, well-maintained lane markings and signage, all within bounded operating areas. There will be remote human oversight. Governments at all levels are most unlikely to allow autonomous vehicles to roam unmonitored. That’s sensible public policy.

    In contrast, because human driving remains available, vehicle owner-drivers in the less controversial and high-momentum Stream 1 of driver assistance will be able to travel on all types of roads, a practically unlimited operating domain. The auto industry is trying to enable drivers to gain swaths of time to do limited non-driving tasks on limited access highways. Less attentive driving has the potential to become safer, with crashes from driver error less common. The inevitable years ahead for roads that mix automated and non-automated vehicles will challenge and delay the full potential for mitigating distraction.

    Stream 1 drivers with automated assistance will more easily tolerate longer distance commutes that let them access lower-cost housing and closer proximity to outdoor recreation. The daily grind of congested commuting from suburbs to downtowns could be significantly eased for drivers of highly-automated vehicles, who can then focus on non-driving activities.

    By making car travel easier, Stream 1 will be a force of unknown magnitude for making urban areas spread outward. Traffic could increase but would move more smoothly because of automated control assistance. Many consumers will embrace Stream 1, so it will not initially reduce parking demands in our residential areas, employment centers, or shopping districts in the way the slower-arriving Stream 2 promises.

    Stream 1 automated driver assistance appeals to the sense of autonomy and control that comes with car ownership. The driverless Stream 2 supports the rising attraction of efficient ride hailing, ride sharing and taxis. Both are coming, with Stream 1 having the advantage now. But which path of innovation will dominate in the 2020s?

    Stream 1 automated driver assistance has no deployment barriers. It’s simply your next car purchase or the one after. It conforms to every purpose and role that your family vehicle now plays: habit, status, privacy, security, and the sense of assurance you get from owning a car as you and your parents long have.

    The full automation in Stream 2 faces a series of obstacles to everyday use, with gaps in technological capability an even bigger issue than regulatory barriers. For Stream 2 to be realized, drivers must become completely redundant in all circumstances within a geographic range of service. Even with machine learning in computer algorithms, that’s a tough goal. Reaching a near-error-free level of robotic motor vehicle operations over a broad geographic region at the human level of 100 million miles between fatal incidents may be inevitable, but the number of years to get Stream 2 cars to be this safe is still uncertain.

    Eventually, Stream 2 will become the taxicab, the Uber, the Lyft, the ReachNow, and the city bus of the future, reducing operating cost by eliminating drivers. Stream 2 will be battery-electric powered for operation that is quiet, non-polluting, and energy-efficient. Optimists for the automated vehicle’s future are enthusiastic about their potential for making car ownership unnecessary for many people.

    But wait. Consumers will shift away from car ownership only as new Stream 2 on-demand mobility services emerge as suitable for the wide range of personal desires and needs that exist within any typical family. That will require new levels of affordable vehicle availability, range, responsiveness, convenience, choice, comfort and personalization not currently available today, and also not easily reached in the early years of Stream 2 robo-cabs.

    Stream 1 is familiar and can be safely left to new car dealers and existing motor vehicle regulations policy. Stream 2 breaks with current practice, however, providing the biggest opportunity for congestion reduction in the long run. This is where regional and local governments need to focus now by encouraging, facilitating, and funding demonstration projects of the driverless vehicles available now.

    John Niles lives in Seattle. He is a principal with the automated vehicle consultancy Grush Niles Strategic, and is also the Research Director at Center for Advanced Transportation and Energy Solutions (CATES) and a Research Associate at Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University. This essay builds upon a report that his Toronto colleague Bern Grush prepared for The Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO), issued October 2016,”Ontario Must Prepare for Vehicle Automation.”

    Photo: Flckr user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson). Trimmed and retouched with PS9 by Mariordo [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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    In a just released poll by the Bay Area Council a majority of respondents indicated an expectation that traffic congestion in the Bay Area (the San Jose-San Francisco combined statistical area) is likely to get worse.

    It is already bad enough. The Bay Area includes two major urban areas (over 1,000,000 population), with San Francisco ranked second worst in traffic congestion in the United States, closely following Los Angeles. In San Francisco, the average travel time during peak travel hours was reported to be 41 percent worse due to traffic congestion, according to the 2015 Annual Mobility Report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. That means a trip that would normally take 30 minutes without congestion stretches to 42 minutes. Los Angeles is only slightly worse, where the travel time congestion penalty is 43 percent. In the adjacent and smaller San Jose urban area, congestion adds 38 percent to travel times, tying with Seattle as third worst in the nation.

    According to a Mercury News article by George Avalos, “The Bay Area’s traffic woes are so severe that more than two-thirds of the region’s residents surveyed in a new poll are demanding a major investment to fix the mess — even if that means stomaching higher taxes.” Residents perceive the problem as an “emergency that requires drastic solutions,” and 70 percent of those asked support a “major regional investment” to improve traffic.

    Those who expect traffic congestion to get worse are probably right. Public policies in California and the Bay Area virtually require it. For example, the state has proposed a “road diet” program that would place significant barriers in the way of highway capacity expansion. Without capacity expansion, traffic is likely to only get worse.

    The regional transportation plan (Plan Bay Area), adopted by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, seeks significant densification (called “pack and stack” by critics). Should the plan succeed, you can bank on traffic congestion getting even worse. It is no coincidence that Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose have the worst traffic congestion in the nation. They are also the nation’s three densest urban areas. Indeed, higher densities are associated with greater traffic congestion.

    There are, of course, things that can be done. But no one in the Bay Area should suspect that California, with its present policies, is up to the job.

    Take, for example, the newly announced plan by Governor Brown and legislative leaders to spend $52 billion over the next 10 years on transportation, much of it on roads. The program would require the largest increase in the state’s gasoline tax and vehicle fees in history. It will all go to repairs and maintenance, which are necessary, and to transit, walking and bike infrastructure. Yet, according to press reports, it contains nothing for the highway capacity expansions required for serious congestion relief.

    It is a sad commentary that the state has been deferring maintenance on the roads that carry more than 98 percent of the state’s surface (non-airline) travel, while continuing to pursue a mixed conventional-high- speed rail proposal that, at the moment, is set to cost $64 billion. If ever finished, it will probably cost much more and will be lucky to carry even one percent of California travel (See note).

    Some may romantically anticipate that transit can substitute for the automobile and reduce traffic congestion. This is fantasy, as the US experience with urban rail proves. For the most part, transit cannot get you from here to there in the modern metropolitan area. In the Bay Area, the average commuter using transit can reach only 3.5 percent of the jobs in 30 minutes in the San Francisco metropolitan area and 2.0 percent of the jobs in the San Jose metropolitan area (according to the University of Minnesota Accessibility Laboratory). Even with a 60-minute commute, the share of jobs accessible in both areas is only about 20 percent. Even where transit is most intense in the San Francisco Bay Area, the average commuter can reach 16 times as many jobs in 30 minutes and eight times as many in 60 minutes (Figures 1 and 2). That is not to minimize the value of transit, which carries 50 percent of commuters to the nation’s six largest downtown areas (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington). But in each of these metropolitan areas the overwhelming percentage of jobs are outside downtowns, where the overwhelming share of commuting is by car.

    The hope of some planners that traffic will get so bad people will switch to transit requires service that takes people where they want to go. They must still be wondering why people persist in driving their cars that take them where they need to go instead of switching to transit that takes them where planners would like them to go. Of course, the reality is that transit provides little mobility beyond the urban core and cannot be made to do so at any reasonable cost.

    The bottom line is that traffic congestion can get considerably worse. In Bangkok and Mexico City, traffic congestion is at least 70 percent worse than in the Bay Area, according to the Tom Tom Traffic Index. This is despite much lower automobile ownership rates.

    The survey indicated another alternative for those who really cannot stand the Bay Area’s unbearable and worsening traffic congestion. Move. The Bay Area Council found that 40 percent of respondents and 46 percent of Millennials are considering moving from the area in the next few years.

    Indeed, that is beginning to happen. After a five-year respite in the Bay Area’s substantial net domestic out-migration, 26,000 more people left than arrived in 2016. The big loser was Santa Clara County (a net loss of 21,000), while San Francisco County (city) lost 7,000. Between 2000 and 2009, the Bay Area had lost more than 500,000 net domestic migrants.

    For the millions who will remain in the Bay Area, however, moving is not a solution. Of course, a dawn of reason could occur among the leadership of California and the Bay Area, in which ideologically preferred solutions are replaced by practical strategies that work. Things will probably have to get much worse for the public to demand that.

    Note: See my co-authored reports with Joseph Vranich, The California High Speed Rail Proposal: A Due Diligence Report (2008), and California High Speed Rail: An Updated Due Diligence Report (2012).

    Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

    Photo: City of San Francisco (by author)


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  • 04/14/17--22:38: Welcome to South Chicago
  • If you've been reading my stuff here long enough, you probably know that cringe when I hear people talk about Chicago's South Side as a monolith, as code for black and poor.  The truth is, there are many facets to the South Side.  It is largely black, but not exclusively so; it is less wealthy than other parts of the city and region, but with pockets of wealth also.  It has its very troubled spots, but it has places of promise.  I've written about one part of the South Side here, and recently wrote about a nearby but very different part of the South Side too.  With that in mind, I'm adding another entry into my "Welcome To" series.  Today, I'll talk about one of the oldest parts of the South Side, and indeed Chicago -- the neighborhood of South Chicago.

    Others in the "Welcome To" Series:

    Welcome To Mount Greenwood

    Welcome To Rosemont

    Welcome To The South Side, JRW Style

    South Chicago does indeed fit one image of the South Side: it is a classic late 19th/early 20th century industrial neighborhood, and that sense is captured in the image above.  Virtually from its inception, steel production, port activities and rail transportation defined the community.  Situated at the mouth of the Calumet River as it enters Lake Michigan, the neighborhood was well suited to produce manufactured goods and deliver them to the entire nation. 

    Had things gone a little differently, South Chicago could've been at the center of Chicagoland, rather than on the periphery.  The Calumet is in fact a larger river than the Chicago River, closer to the centerpoint for today's metropolitan area.  There are historical reports that suggest that the early U.S. government nearly established Fort Dearborn where the river empties into Lake Michigan, but later opted for the less flood-prone area further north. 

    The swampy areas around South Chicago may have inhibited early development but never diminished its importance.  Settlement of the area began in the 1830's, and happened independently of Chicago's settlement and growth, ten miles to the north.  The Chicago Fire (1871), the establishment of the South Works steel mill (1880), annexation into Chicago (1889), the acquisition of South Works by U.S. Steel (1901), and the creation of the Calumet Harbor/Port of Chicago (1921) all served as catalysts for growth that started in South Chicago and spread to its surrounding communities.   

    South Chicago has a unique physical and demographic character derived from its growth independent of Chicago and relative isolation because of the surrounding swampy land.  To the north, west and south of South Chicago, most residential and commercial development consists of structures built between about 1925-1955.  But within South Chicago itself, you can find plenty of blocks that look like this:

    92nd and Brandon, South Chicago



    or like this:


    90th and Houston, South Chicago



    that have much more of the 1890's/1900's/1910's-era construction that could be found in places much closer to the Loop, like Bucktown or Bridgeport.  When driving into the area, it gives a sense of stepping back in time. 

    South Chicago's commercial heart, the aptly named Commercial Avenue, also has the rather dusty appearance.  Here's the primary commercial intersection of 91st and Commercial (presumably scrubbed of all cars and pedestrians just for this Google Earth pic):



    South Chicago is also served by a spur of the Metra Electric line that provides transit service to much of the South Side.  The South Chicago branch begins (or ends, I guess, depending on your perspective) at 93rd and Baltimore, just east of the Commercial Avenue view you see above.  The only electrified train line in Metra's transit system, and the only one that does not share its tracks with freight lines, South Chicago has regular service that connects it to the Loop within 35 minutes.

    I had the pleasure of working with the South Chicago Chamber of Commerce during my time with the City of Chicago about 25 years ago.  It was then that I found out another unique characteristic of the community -- a substantial and long-established Latino community, mostly Mexican, that's been based in South Chicago for more than 100 years.  Significant Mexican immigration to Chicago began around 1910, with immigrants drawn (or recruited) to the city to work in steel plants and packinghouses, and also pushed by the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution that began around the same time.  Steel mill jobs were plentiful at the time, but so were worker strikes.  Mexican workers were often cast as strike breakers, putting them at odds with recent European immigrants.  By 1960 Latinos made up more than one-third of South Chicago's population, even as it was less than ten percent citywide.  Today, blacks are the largest racial/ethnic group in the community, but Latinos still make up nearly one-fourth of the population there.

    Developers are trying to bring South Chicago into the 21st century by parlaying its lakefront location into new development.  The former U.S. Steel South Works site, closed in 1992, is the single largest vacant site on the Chicago lakefront.  A development team is working out the details of a purchase of the 430-acre site to build as many as 12,000 residential units and new retail on the site.  This effort comes on the heels of a failed joint venture attempt by U.S. Steel and a developer that fell apart in 2004, and considerable infrastructure investment by the city into the area (remediation of the U.S. Steel site, an extension of Lake Shore Drive, and the creation and upgrade of lakefront parks). 

    I'm guessing that there will come a time when South Chicago sheds its industrial past and embraces its potential.  A key lakefront location, with nearby parks and excellent transit options, and a funky, authentic building stock that might appeal to urban pioneers might mean that South Chicago could get discovered.  We'll see.

    Pete Saunders is a Detroit native who has worked as a public and private sector urban planner in the Chicago area for more than twenty years.  He is also the author of "The Corner Side Yard," an urban planning blog that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of Rust Belt cities.

    Lead photo: A freighter leaves Lake Michigan and enters the Calumet River Turning Basin in South Chicago, near 95th Street and Lake Shore Drive.  Source: still from youtube.com


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    The real division in American politics today is no longer right or left, but rather between populism and an increasingly dominant corporate ruling class. This division is obvious within the Trump administration, elected on a nationalist and populist program but increasingly tilting toward a more corporatist orientation.

    This matters far beyond the personality conflicts within the White House between the incendiary nationalists, led by “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, and a coterie of Wall Street insiders allied with Trump family advisers. The real question is not whether Trump dumps Bannon, who seems to lack the proper temperament for government, but if he is seen as betraying the Middle America constituency that elected him.

    Most traditional conservatives reliably serve large corporate interests, and can be counted on to ignore the basic interests of middle- and working-class voters. This has been clear in the recent health care vote and on internet privacy legislation, and may also soon be obvious in the GOP’s tax reform efforts. Oftentimes, the move to the “center” is really about who is pulling the strings, notably the ubiquitous Goldman Sachs, whose alumni control top posts at both the U.S. Treasury and the National Economic Council. Unlike many Trump voters, these people have reason to be satisfied with the current state of Davos capitalism.

    The origins of the new political order

    The re-emergence of class and geography as primary political determinatives stems from numerous factors: increasing inequality, decline in middle-class jobs, immigration and regulations connected to climate change. These all place Main Street businesses, particularly in the Heartland, at a disadvantage to ever more concentrated, globalist and politically connected larger corporate interests.

    In the primaries, the corporatist worldview generally was embraced by most major GOP candidates, with the notable exception of Trump. Similarly, the race for the Democratic nomination pitted former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a legendary magnet for corporate cash and favor-granting, against Sen. Bernie Sanders, a crusty septuagenarian with openly socialist leanings. That Trump won, and Sanders, against determined opposition in the Democratic establishment, almost beat Clinton, reveals just how strong the populist strain has become across the political spectrum.

    Sanders didn’t openly attack then-President Barack Obama, but he assaulted policies tied to the Obama-allied postindustrial corporate elite. He denounced, without naming names, Obama’s remarkable forbearance with the financial titans who engineered the housing bust. Sanders did best not among the affluent or aggrieved minorities, the base of the gentry Democratic Party, but rather among white voters, particularly the younger cohorts, many of whom are swelling the ranks of the precariat of part-time, conditional workers.

    Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

    Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com. He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

    Photo: Gage SkidmoreCC License


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    John Kenneth Galbraith once said that the beginnings of wisdom were to never trust an economist. Those of us that spent most of our adult lives in deindustrialized communities understood his point.

    As the mills and factories closed in working-class communities like Youngstown, an array of business and academic economists suggested that economic devastation was part of the natural economic order known as “creative destruction.” Disinvestment, technological displacement, downsizing, and outsourcing were all necessary for corporate efficiency and dynamism, regardless of the “temporary” harm to individuals and communities. Capital, they explained, was simply being shifted from old to new investments, and new jobs would magically appear. Of course, workers would have to move or gain new skills in order to claim those jobs. Unfortunately, those predictions were wildly overstated. Capital was not reinvested in productive ways or moved offshore, many workers never found comparable employment, communities deteriorated. Over time, appeals to “creative destruction” were recognized not only as erroneous, but as a cover for capital getaway.

    We should remember this story as we enter a fourth industrial revolution that will merge technologies and blur the lines between digital and biological spheres. In the process, these digital transformations will spread unemployment and increase precarity. As in the past, the digital revolution has been sold as part of modernity and progress, but increasingly technological change is proving more destructive than positive. The New York Times reports that some top researchers have already acknowledged that automation and robotics in manufacturing have resulted in a large net of loss of employment, declining wages, and disruption of working-class communities. The Times concludes that given unemployment levels, “there is no clear path forward, — especially for blue-collar men without college degrees.”

    But it is not just working-class men in industrial jobs who are suffering. Automation also affects jobs in other economic sectors. In fact, 38% of all US jobs are at risk due to automation, including service sector work in fields such as finance, transportation, education, and food services. Nor is technological displacement limited to the working class. Middle-class workers also stand to lose jobs and wages.

    Many corporate executives embrace this change, viewing automation solely in terms of profitability and suitability and ignoring the human costs. As Andrew F. Puzder, chief executive of CKE Restaurants and Donald Trump’s original choice for Secretary of Labor, summed up this attitude in explaining why he would prefer robots over human workers: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.” To paraphrase, Harry Braverman, technology is not neutral. Rather, it enters the workplace as “the representative of management masquerading in the trappings of science.”

    Technology leaders understand that their work contributes to displacement and inequality. In “The Disruptors: Silicon Valley Elites’ Vision of the Future,” Greg Ferenstein reports on a survey of tech leaders. He found that most agreed with Paul Graham, the highly influential web leader, that it is the “job of tech to create inequality…You can’t prevent great variations in wealth without preventing people from getting rich, and you can’t do that without preventing them from starting startups.” This view reflects the self-interests of the industry, of course, but it also suggests deep-seated beliefs in technological determinism and the benefits of creative destruction.

    At the same time, working people have become increasingly resistant to the uncritical acceptance of workplace technology, and this contributes to the populist backlash we’re seeing in the U.S. and across Europe. The Brexit vote, the rise of right wing parties in Europe, and Trump’s election all reflects people’s doubts about older economic paradigms and technological determinism, especially in older working-class communities. Alongside racism and xenophobia, these movements also reflect the anxieties of those who are being left behind by economic development.

    Technological and political elites have good reason to worry about the potential for class rebellion, and some have started to rethink their faith in technology or, at least, to ask about how to mitigate the outcomes of technological change. For example, a group of science and technology leaders have established Singularity University (SU), which touts itself as a global community whose mission is “to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” It holds ‘summits” around the world, underwritten by large international firms, such as Deloitte, that bring together researchers, entrepreneurs, institutions, and governments – most of whom believe deeply in the power of robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and powerful computing to transform work and improve lives. Yet SU’s approach is remarkable because it emphasizes the impact of technology on people’s lives. While SU takes a positivist and entrepreneurial approach, arguing that the world’s biggest problems are world’s biggest business opportunities, it clearly understands that any technological advance must take into account its impact on communities.

    Silicon Valley firms also see themselves as potential leaders in developing strategies for a future where many workers will be displaced by technology. Some envision a more direct approach: the universal basic income, which Scott Santens describes as a social “vaccine” for the 21st century. Y-Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator firm, has begun experimenting with this idea by providing a basic fixed income to 100 families in Oakland, California. Give Directly, a Silicon Valley non-profit, is testing the idea as a way of eliminating poverty by giving each individual in a small village in Kenya $22 a month for 12 years. The New York Times describes the project “as first true test of a universal basic income. Not just given to individuals but to a whole community for an extended period.” Of course, these approaches are not considered socialism; they are defined as providing an “income floor.”

    The potential of these experiments has not been not lost on developed nations, where some see a universal basic income as strategy for ameliorating the impact of automation. The European Parliament, Korea, France, Canada, Finland, Netherlands, and Scotland are all considering a basic income as a strategy for managing a future without work. In the US, growing economic inequality, the rise of contingent work, and the defeat of the Republicans’ alternative to Obamacare had the unexpected consequence of restarting the discussions of expanding the social safety net. For example, the National Academy of Social Insurance is discussing the expansion of Social Security and Medicare and extending unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and unemployment and disability insurance as tools to balance the volatility of jobs and income as long-term, full-time, traditional jobs become ever more scarce due to corporate restructuring and technological change. Importantly, these initiatives are gaining public and political support, especially single payer health care.

    The economic displacement of the era of deindustrialization caused great harm to working-class people and their communities. Decades later, as technological displacement threatens not only the working class but many in the middle class as well, business and political leaders alike recognize that it is in their interest to pay attention to the consequences of economic change. Private and legislative initiatives around the universal basic income may not succeed, and some are meeting clear resistance. The European Parliament rejected a report urging them to “seriously consider” basic income as a response to “the economic consequences of automation and artificial intelligence.” Nonetheless, as political unrest grows as a result of technological change such discussions lay the foundation for the new social policies we will need for a future without good jobs.

    John Russo is a visiting fellow at Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. He is the co-author with Sherry Linkon of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown (8th printing).

    Photo: elycefeliz, CC License


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