东流影院Commentary on public policy, place and social relations

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Youth Movement and Cedar Rapids

Mt. Vernon, Iowa, is the home of Cornell College 
and produced singer-songwriter Dan Bern.
It may also be a magnet for well-educated young adults.

The idea factory that is City Observatory reported this week that census data show educated young adults continue to settle in city centers. The researchers looked at population change within a three-mile radius around the central business district in the 52 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. They found the number of those aged 25-34 with at least a bachelor's degree increased in each of those 52 cores; that in the vast majority of those areas the annual rate of increase was greater in 2010-16 than in 2000-10; and that college-educated young adults are 2.5 times more likely than other people to live in these city centers (Cortright 2020).

The site includes a dashboard where you can look at the record for individual metros. For example, downtown Chicago's young educated population was 93,179 in 2016; it increased at an annual rate of 3.5% between 2010 and 2016, down from 4.4 percent between 2000 and 2010. Downtown Washington, D.C. had a young educated population of 99,051 in 2016; its annual increase was 4.1 percent between 2010 and 2016, down from 5.6 percent between 2000 and 2010. Downtown Seattle's young educated population of 53,775 in 2016 was up at an annual rate of 8.8 percent since 2010, after rising a mere 3 percent annually between 2000 and 2010.

Highlights of Table 4 (Cortright 2020: 13)...

Biggest downtown populations, aged 25-34 with bachelor's degree+
New York NY 242,380
San Francisco CA 116,248
Washington DC 99,051
Chicago IL 93,179
Boston MA 90,889
NEXT: Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, Baltimore, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Portland OR
#52: Las Vegas NV 2,393

Largest population changes, 2010-2016, aged 25-34 with bachelor's degree+
San Francisco CA 25,213
Seattle WA 22,120
Washington DC 21,400
Philadelphia PA 21,395
Boston MA 20,799
NEXT: Chicago, Denver, New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas
#52: Rochester NY 279

Largest annualized rate of change, 2010-2016, aged 25-34 with bachelor's degree+
Detroit MI 16.0%
Phoenix AZ 12.9
Indianapolis IN 11.3
Nashville TN 10.4
Kansas City MO 9.5
NEXT: Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Richmond, Oklahoma City
#52: Rochester NY 0.4%

Cortright concludes that cities continue to attract well-educated young adults, limited only by housing supply (see New York City), demonstrating "strong and sustained demand for urban living" in spite of rising costs and how easily technology facilitates mobility. This seems to sustain even in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, as early data from Zillow and Apartment Finder show searches in downtown areas actually increasing. The concentration of talent in cities, and within cities, in close-in urban neighborhoods is a key characteristic of the increasingly knowledge-based, urban economy that primarily drives US economic growth.... [H]aving an urban environment that both attracts and retains these talented workers is an essential part of any local economic development strategy (Cortright 2020: 3; see also Herriges 2020, Patino 2020).

Cedar Rapids is, of course, a much smaller city than those in Cortright's dataset, but a first pass with U.S. Census Bureau data shows similar growth in the young educated population of our core.

A three mile radius around the center of the business district roughly extends from Edgewood Road on the west to Forest Drive on the east, and from Wilson Avenue on the south to 29th Street/Coldstream Avenue on the north. That area includes, more or less, census tracts 11.01, 11.02, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, and 27. Following Cortright (2020: 23), data are from the American Community Survey's 5-year estimates, comparing the 2012 and 2018 surveys (to which Cortright refers by their midpoints, 2010 and 2016). 

Between the 2012 and 2018 surveys, the Cedar Rapids metropolitan statistical area as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau increased its population of young educated people by 1,578, dispersed this way:
    Linn County 1,510
        Cedar Rapids 1,114
            downtown core 499
            rest of city 615
        Marion 117
        Hiawatha -227
        next five towns in size 125
        rest of county 381
    Other counties 68

The core of Cedar Rapids, defined as those 13 census tracts I listed above, increased in population from 42,568 to 42,852, a scant 0.67 percent, much smaller than the 7.5 percent gain in the largest metros reported by Cortright (2020: 11) . The young educated population in the core increased at a much higher rate, 30.8 percent, from 1,619 to 2,118. This is comparable to the 32.8 percent overall for the largest metros (Cortright 2020: 12), and much larger than the city as a whole (17 percent) or the Cedar Rapids metropolitan statistical area, which grew about 12 percent in young educated population. Outside of the city limits, experience was mixed. Some towns outside Cedar Rapids added well-educated young adults, albeit from tiny bases. Lisbon grew 333 percent (42 to 140), Mt. Vernon 21 percent (285 to 344), and Fairfax 15 percent (74 to 114). Linn County outside of its eight largest towns actually grew 67 percent (570 to 951).

Some tracts within the Cedar Rapids core dramatically increased their well-educated young adult population, though there were other neighboring tracts where that group decreased. Big increases were noted in 11.02 (Ellis Park west to Edgewood Road), 12 (east of Ellis Park along the river), 23 (east of Edgewood Road between 1st and E Avenues), 24 (stadiums west to Edgewood Road) and 26 (Czech Village and Hayes Park) on the west side, and 13 (Cedar Lake and the northern Mound View neighborhood) east of the river. For what it's worth--the tracts are not contiguous--these six increased their combined young educated population from 451 to 778, a gain of 72.5 percent .

Census tract 27, which has seen some very prominent construction in the New Bohemia district, saw a marginal decline in well-educated young adult population from 102 to 98.

New apartment construction in Oakhill-Jackson (census tract 27)

At this point, you may feel like saying "Nice confirmation," and prepare your clicking finger to move on to the next blog. However, humility compels me to say that:
  1. because of how Cortright names his data points ("2010" and "2016"), I initially looked at the wrong surveys ("Big whoop," says a chorus of readers), and...
  2. when a fellow uses the 2010 and 2016 surveys, the data for metropolitan Cedar Rapids look... totally different. Between those two surveys, Cedar Rapids's downtown core gained exactly 64 people aged 25-34 with bachelor's degree or higher, a mere 3.6 percent. That's less than the rest of the city (617), not to mention Marion (1,455) and Mount Vernon (130), and barely higher than tiny Lisbon (56).
There may be some volatility due to Cedar Rapids's catastrophic 2008 flood that would be affected by substituting 2006 and 2007 for 2011 and 2012 in the initial wave, or switching 2012-3 for 2017-8 in the second wave. Maybe cohorts of existing residents are aging into or out of the categories at once. Or there may be volatility due to random error in the survey data. Or maybe some of my math is off--only the 2016 and 2018 surveys include raw numbers, so that required calculations for 2010 and 2012--though I did double-check if some number looked weird.

东流影院Age 25-34 with bachelor’s or +

ACS 2010

ACS 2012

ACS 2016

ACS 2018

Cedar Rapids city





13 core tracts















Mount Vernon





7 LC towns not CR





Rest of Linn Co





Tract 12





Tract 24





Tract 26





Tract 27





In any case, I'm not as confident in the robustness of what I reported above as I might have been if I'd just run it correctly the first time and left it at that.

There are other reasons to question how much Cedar Rapids's experience would match that of major metros. One way in which Cedar Rapids clearly differs is its lack of density, which when paired with its small size makes it very easy to get around as long as you own an automobile. If the reason to live in the core of a major city is to be close to the employment and entertainment action (Cortright 2020: 6-7, citing several studies including a 2015 NBER paper by Edlund et al. and a 2020 Knight Foundation/Urban Institute paper by Scott et al.), a short drive from anywhere in Linn County puts you smack in the center of the Cedar Rapids action. It takes about as much time on a Saturday afternoon to drive to downtown Chicago from 4950 N. Ashland Av (former address of my grandparents) than it does to drive to downtown Cedar Rapids from Mt.Vernon, but here the drive can practically be door-to-door, with parking plentiful and often free once you get to your destination.

My friend Chris Draper, a private economist and planner, suggested the earlier age of marriage and childbearing in Cedar Rapids might make closeness-to-entertainment less of a concern for young educated people. According to the Census, 37.1 percent of Cedar Rapids women aged 20-34 are married, which is about double the typical percentage for major metros. So that may be one factor encouraging young educated Cedar Rapidians to locate away from the city center. On the other hand, it doesn't explain differences between major metros. San Francisco (23.2) and Seattle (26.3) actually have higher percentages of young married women than Rochester, New York (16.0).

Cortright (2020:14) suggests one reason for low growth among young educated people in metros like New York City and Washington, D.C. is lack of available housing. That may apply to Cedar Rapids as well? We have a lot of pricey condominiums in the city center, as well as income-controlled apartments, but how much in between?

SEE ALSO: "Where are the Suburbs?" 24 June 2019

Monday, June 8, 2020

CNU Diary

CNU 28 logo


This summer's Congress for the New Urbanism was scheduled for Minneapolis-St. Paul, which is not only less than five hours' drive north of here, it is also the home of my son Eli. So after seven years' acquaintance, not to mention liberal use of their resources, I put my money where my heart is, joined the organization, and registered for the conference.

Then came the coronavirus. CNU was still three months off at the point when things started shutting down, but it soon became obvious to the organizers that it would need to be moved online. Attendees were given a choice of how to handle their registration; I opted to join the online conference at half-price, and to use the remaining money I'd paid as a down-payment on regisration for next year's conference in Oklahoma City. Jane is excited, because she's never been to Oklahoma, and you are excited, because you can look forward to another one of these posts a year from now!

Minneapolis, meanwhile, became a flashpoint of protest two weeks ago today, when George Floyd of that city was murdered by police officers who suspected him of passing counterfeit money. The killing by choking required an excruciating nine minutes, during which passers-by begged the officers to stop. At least one took a cellphone video, which contradicted the officers' own account, became viral, and touched off several days of protest. The City's initially obtuse response sent protests worldwide, accompanied in some places by looting (of various origin) and in some places by additional police violence. Most recently a nine-member majority of the Minneapolis City Council expressed support for dismantling and re-forming the police department (Navratil 2020). 

Floyd's shadow, even moreso now than that of COVID-19, hangs over the conference. One conference communication described "a backdrop of increasing urgency to deliver solutions that build complete communities that are inclusive, equitable, and accessible to all." Absolutely.

Billy Hattaway, transportation director for the City of Orlando
(Source: Governing. Used without permission.)

The conference begins for real Wednesday. Today and tomorrow are some "core sessions" introducing attendees to new urbanism and key concepts like walkability, strong towns, accessory dwelling units, and housing typology. This gave me a chance to test out the site, and to learn that while both Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids are in the Central time zone, the CNU schedule uses Eastern time. So I missed the very first session.

I looked in on a session on "context-sensitive transportation design" led by Billy Hattaway, a design engineer with experience in both government and private practice. Either Hattaway or I were having Internet problems, because the presentation was occasionally breaking up. That never happens in real life! Hattaway showed some striking images of how downtown streets had been transformed from bleak, dangerous speedways into economically and socially vibrant places. Key features included on-street parking, wide sidewalks where there had been none at all, and street trees. Moral of the story: You can't have all of everything, but you can have a lot if your priorities are right.


Off and on gentle showers in Iowa today, a byproduct of Hurricane Cristobal which hit the Gulf Coast last week. (We'd been threatened with a deluge, though.) This morning, I went to Cafe St. Pio, the coffeehouse in Czech Village, where I chatted with Eric Holthaus, the city's sustainability coordinator. How urbanist is that?

Housing protest, New Orleans, 2006
(Source: The Conversation. Used without permission.)

Still warming up for the conference, I attended a core session on housing led by Kirsten Compitello of Michael Baker International and Megan O'Hara of Urban Design Associates. Too often policy makers think of housing basically as a physical structure in which people live--assuming that people who can afford to can provide themselves with something above the basic level--when they should think about it as a basis for social inclusion and economic opportunity, as well as the building blocks for neighborhoods. Currently low-income housing is characterized by undersupply, exploitation, zoning constraints, and lack of access to transportation and jobs. We need more missing middle housing and better preservation of existing housing stock, in mixed-income neighborhoods.

It just kept raining all day. I'm glad it's not Bike to Work Week.

Wednesday, June 10

The conference began in earnest, with four concurrent sessions at 10:30 a.m. CT. An immediately-noticeable difference online: at an on-site conference, I might get to the room a few minutes early, and spend the time either chatting up acquaintances or trying to figure out how to place my coffee such that I won't kick it over the first time I move my leg. Today we sat in app limbo, wondering (at least in my case) if I'd clicked the right thing, until the host let us in a few minutes late.

Continuing the mixed-income/missing middle housing theme, I started with Finding the Right Way to Do the Right Thing, featuring Cheryl O'Neill, of the Washington architecture firm Torti Gallas, and Dan Solomon of the San Francisco firm Mithun. The panel was moderated by Professor Emily Talen of the University of Chicago. Solomon framed the issue as a clash between two urbanist values: sense of place and density-by-infill. The problem is that those who value sense of place resist infill housing because it's often badly-done, massive and cheap.

(screenshot from Dan Solomon's presentation)

The thought was that more attention to better design could overcome residents' objections. To that end, Solomon suggesting setting a maximum FAR (floor-to-area ratio) that would require more compatible, less massive design, and O'Neill offered her firm's "five strategies for carefully-crafted infill." One of Torti Gallas's current projects is Avec, about a mile from where I lived in Washington. 

Avec Building under construction, June 2019 (Google Maps screen capture)

The discussion quickly got into the weeds, as I've also experienced at political science conferences, aimed towards architects and away from policy. Moreover, O'Neill thought the problem was unique to superstar cities like San Francisco and Washington. "Other places that don't have very high values," like Baltimore, have the opposite problem of not enough demand for units. Still, as a resident of a small midwestern city, I can say densification is a problem everywhere, possibly informed by the poor appearance and construction of infill housing. What Andres Duany et al (2000: 26-27) say about corner stores applies to missing middle housing as well: the examples most people are familiar with are enough to put them off the whole concept. 

Yet what people complain about here are noise, parking, and property values. Even if the economic imperatives aren't so strong as to overcome architects' creativity and taste--another issue they glossed over--are the political objections going to be overcome by nicer buildings? Or must we become overbearing like California to get anything built?

Also today, I attended panels on New Tools for Urban Resilience on various ways of considering climate change, and Oh, Behave! The Science Behind Humans' Buggy Decision-Making, and How to Make Societal Change on behavioral analysis of individual and institutional decision-making; that one featured Professor Michele Traub of the Psychology Department at St. Cloud State University.

Steve Mouzon, who blogs at The Original Green, is live-Tweeting this conference! Follow every twist and turn by following him at @stevemouzon.

Matthew Lambert at the master controls for the chat rooms

The evening featured a virtual version of the traditional CNU pub crawl. I met some interesting people, but it wasn't the same as actually touring the third places of Minneapolis. As you would expect this week, much of the "pub" talk turned to police relations. David Moye, recently elected to the City Council of West Columbia, South Carolina, boasted that his mixed-race community had achieved an accommodation between police and residents more than thirty years ago. In another chat room, Jim Kumon, in his office 1.5 miles from where George Floyd was murdered, talked about the long period of unrest in that city, with considerably more nuance than often comes across in news reports. (I know Jim, though we've never met in person. When he was at Strong Towns, we worked together on this event.) Meanwhile, one of our members washed her dishes loudly in the background, which offered a bit of pub ambience. Don't forget that "mute" button, Zoom users!

Thursday, June 11

"You're not really an urbanist," someone said at one of the chat rooms last night. Apparently he defined urbanism as a way of practicing architecture, design, or planning. I teach college classes in political science, and write what I write, which is analytical advocacy of some sort of -ism. Isn't it urbanism? That's why I'm here. Bottom line: I sent the membership fee to CNU, and they took it, so I think that makes me an urbanist.

This morning began with a virtual version of Running with Urbanists, another CNU tradition in adapted form. I don't run, so wasn't sure how I would participate. This seems now to have been a failure of curiosity, so I promise I will be better connected tomorrow, even if I have to run or use minutes.

A relaxed-looking Peter Calthorpe, who long ago co-authored a book that introduced me to urbanism, was part of a plenary panel on housing access and affordability this afternoon. He talked about converting abandoned or failing retail space to housing in the San Francisco Bay area, which is nearly a million units short at this point. "It spreads the problem out... it focuses on the right area, but lets every community take its share without being deadly," and the arterials could be adapted for, say, bus rapid transit. (A number of people questioned whether counting on transit use of any sort, even ride-sharing, was realistic in the post-pandemic era. Calthorpe argued that transit would be back, and anyhow we have bigger crises at hand including affordable housing, climate change, and equity/opportunity.) 

Fellow panelist Robin Chase recounted the many ways in which car-dominated, car-required built environment excludes and/or harms people (immobility, air pollution, reinforces systemic racism); she says the only option to provide access and mobility is multimodal transportation. While we have a lot of sunk costs in the current development pattern, there's "no better time" than the current batch of crises "to shift modes and break old patterns." She casts a longing eye towards street space, which she would like to reallocate to pedestrians, bicycles, and maybe high-occupancy vehicles. 

The plenary session was energetically moderated by Eric Shaw, a designer-planner with the San Francisco mayor's office. Cedar Rapids faces a different problem set than San Francisco does, but we too struggle with inclusion, which requires thinking differently about development. 

Transit-oriented development under construction, Cleveland OH

Earlier today I attended panels on Best of Intentions: Stationing Equity in Transit-Oriented Development (preventing displacement of the poor following public investment) and, after a long personal break, Quantifying Incremental Change (metrics for development that show the possibly counter-intuitive advantages of urbanism). The latter panel included a Power Point slide with a picture of Casey Kasem.

Image result for casey kasem
DJ Casey Kasem, whose catchphrase was
"Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars"

Friday, June 12

Grant Wood lived here: 300 block of 14th Street NE

Greetings from Running with Urbanists! OK, I don't run, ever, with or without urbanists, but I took some pictures on my morning walk near Coe College and posted them to the event site. There are pictures from Chicago, Cleveland, St. Paul, and other cities I love!!

It is a beautiful morning, and on my walk I noticed the For Sale signs have been removed from our marvelous local coffeehouse, Brewed Awakenings (though it's still has not been open since March 20...)

This could be a good sign! (Or they could have sold the site to a fast food chain... but on this lovely morning, let's think positively!)

The business part of the day began with a plenary session, and that began with a video encouraging us to attend next year's conference in Oklahoma City. OK, I will.

The topic of the plenary session was "The City Under Strain," possibly conceived during the pandemic, but two weeks of protests across the country informed it as well. Participants Allison Arieff of the advocacy organization SPUR and Emily Badger of The New York Times recognized this in their opening comments. As Badger summarized:
  • The racial disparities and inequality feeding COVID are also driving protests
  • The ways COVID could leave lasting damage on cities could exacerbate racial inequality, too
  • Ideas for how to improve cities after COVID will have to solve for racial inequality and racism, too
One takeaway from a rich, detailed discussion: Moderator Todd Zimmerman asked what has COVID revealed about cities. Arieff said how badly all of our systems work for most people, and how protected some of us are from most of that. Badger talked about how fragile our social safety net is, citing unemployment insurance, how children are fed (where if not schools?), and where homeless people sleep (where if not the streets?).

Zimmerman also asked what "the equitable city" would look like. I seem to have lost my notes on that one! but one of the panelists suggested it would be where every public issue would be discussed in terms of its effect on equity. Earlier someone had said that the best city would be one where a 7-year-old black girl could move around in safety, which might be as good an answer as any. 

Inequitable public policy: sign from Washington DC freeway protest
(taken at Anacostia Neighborhood Museum)

Also today, I attended Redressing Redlining: Lessons in Realities and Reconciliation, Part I (racial roots of today's housing patterns) and Receiver Cities: Adapting for Climate Migration (anticipated population effects of climate disasters).

This evening, Eli came down from Minneapolis to visit! So I've gotten to see both Eli and CNU, just not in Minnesota.

Saturday, June 13

You don't have to dress up for a virtual conference. Today I chose this very urbanist t-shirt from last fall's open streets event in Washington, D.C.

On this last day of the conference, I attended two more panels. The first panel, Urban Guild: Design Issues II, covered a variety of design-related topics. Several speakers touched on the role of art in place making, and Karen Dulio introduced a website, culturecrowdagency.com, that has not only ideas but also assessement tools. John Anderson displayed a set of baseball cards featuring different types of infill tactics, which are an easy way to show how what is possible in your community relative to what is theoretically possible. Now, of course, we all want a set!

Just add people: Feeling joyful on the patio at Lion Bridge Brewing

The second panel I attended was Art Room: How to Build Happiness and Community into Our Cities and Public Spaces. The panelists took turns answering questions such as: What is a place where you feel joy? What does a post-pandemic future look like that puts health, happiness, and communities first? What joyful patterns appear within the public realm that translates to individual buildings? How can our built environment enable us to be more compassionate? The answers varied, but were less important (I think) than the idea that what our public spaces look and feel like how not only how people use them but how people feel and whether they are able to create community--"setting the stage in the right way," in Steve Mouzon's phrase.

And I watched Active Towns' 4+ minute video on Facebook using all our pictures from Running with Urbanists. Cedar Rapids is represented at about the 35 second mark (not shareable, unfortunately).

The conference proper concluded with an awards ceremony, which didn't interest me much... until I looked in on it, where (of course) there were reports on successful urbanist projects. One winner was The Wharf in Washington D.C., which I visited in May 2018. Lesson learned: I'll be sure to attend the award presentations next year!

What we learned about us in the pandemic

Will more Americans vacation outdoors after the pandemic?

In the halcyon days that were the middle of the last decade, my Corridor Urbanism co-founder Ben Kaplan did a series of what he called Urbanist Goodreads... annotated bibliographies of writing on a particular topic. I am shamelessly stealing this format as a way of starting to sort through the vast array of writing on how the pandemic will affect the future of cities. Today's topic: the future of social life.

People relate to each other in all sorts of ways, of course, but social life is shaped by technology as well as law. The third places of yore whose loss Ray Oldenburg lamented (The Great Good Place [Paragon House, 1989]) were done in by interstate highways, single-use zoning, and big houses with prodigious home entertainment systems, among other things, even before the advent of social media. The sudden shutdown of regular life in March made people aware of patterns in their lives they might previously have taken for granted. If you're not commuting, going to sports events or performing arts events, going to church, hanging out in bars and coffeehouses, or attending meetings, you might suddenly feel the loss of a valued activity at the same time you feel liberated from other things.

In Iowa, we seem to be over the pandemic, even though the pandemic is not yet through with us. Liz Martin of the Gazette took a picture of a packed Lake MacBride beach last week. Precautions, schmecautions--wherever I go I'm in a minority wearing a mask, if not indeed the only one. But we have had two and a half months of restrictions, though nothing on the scale of the Northeastern U.S. I have missed coffeehouses. Though I can take out coffee, or make my own, there's nothing like sitting with a book or a friend while staff and customers do their things around you. I miss the performing arts, though--surprisingly for a lifelong Cubs fan--not sports so much. (The Cubs are on the downswing, though. Maybe I'd feel differently if I rooted for the White Sox or Cardinals.) I don't miss multiple nights out at meetings where people wanted me to do stuff. 

I think I've learned I should be frequenting more coffeehouses and performing arts events, and spending less time at sports arenas and meetings. Hey, we all need to contribute to the commonweal, but as Oscar Wilde said about socialism, "The trouble is it takes up all your free evenings." I've enjoyed my suddenly free evenings, and maybe I can defend some more of them once the lid comes off.

What will people rush back to after the pandemic? (Bars and beaches are definitely on Iowa's collective list.) What will they leave alone? How will new public health regulations or city design affect our choices?

Laura Bliss and Jessica Lee Martin, "Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown," City Lab, 15 April 2020

A huge collection of reader maps of their lives in the shadow of the pandemic. Readers report and depict greater awareness of nature, micro-level details of a built landscape constrained by lockdowns, and... better relations with neighbors. I hope they don't lose these when normal life returns.

Michael Wilson, "These Are the Things That New Yorkers Achingly Miss," New York Times, 9 May 2020

Various responses to this question add up to a city. Some major landmarks are included, as well as personal activities like working out at a gym or yoga studio, but there are also the signs of other, often unknown people that have been so abruptly removed: on the street, on the subway, on the ferry, at the hair salon, in line at the food cart. It is from these interactions that a city is built, and in time will be rebuilt.

Rebecca Renner, "Kids Are Having Pandemic Dreams Too," National Geographic, 11 May 2020

Children, like adults, are having lurid nightmares inspired by the pandemic and the resulting quarantine, which have brought "anxiety, loneliness, and lack of sleep." Will the nightmares, and the anxiety, persist? Psychologist Deirdre Bennett suggests some ways of inspiring "mastery" dreams of overcoming the dread.

What do you do if you are out of something and a trip to the store is suddenly unappealing (or precluded by finances)? You borrow from neighbors, just like the old days, except there are now apps to help you make the connection. Of course, who knows where that toy or jar of peanut butter has been, but, Cotroneo figures, a book borrowed from a neighbor, rather than a public library, is probably a safer bet, having been passed around by fewer problematic hands. 

Sarah!, "Circle Back to This Email," Minimum Viable Planet, 14 May 2020

Among other observations in this always pithy and uplifting weekly from Canada, she notes that the waste stream, already stressed by the loss of market for recycled materials, is getting swamped by excess packaging: COVID-19 fears mean everything now comes in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box inside a Hazmat suit. I suspect this feature will stick around for awhile, figuring that incentives to package goods "safely" will outweigh incentives not to stuff landfills.

Katherine Martinko, "What Will Post-Pandemic Travel Look Like?" Tree Hugger, 11 May 2020

The "urge to travel is hardwired into many humans," but the pandemic experience is likely to shift our modes and destinations outdoors and away from crowds. Expect more camping, canoe trips, skiing, fishing, and the like, along with usage of parks and wilderness areas. People are likely to shift from air to auto travel, and from hotels to home-sharing like Airbnb. She explains: While some people may be grossed out at the thought of staying in a private home where they don't know who's been there before... you're surrounded by fewer people than if you're in a hotel or resort, which means fewer germs. Speaking of hotels, another Tree Hugger post suggests they'll redesign to look and feel cleaner: less stuff in the rooms and more white (Alter 2020). 

As many houses of worship, including mine, agonize over whether and when to return to in-person services, and some others push back against public health regulations, a United Methodist pastor asks which styles of worship are likely to endure in a post-pandemic world? Theater-style megachurches have the advantage of encouraging impersonality, albeit in crowds. Praise bands are safer to restart than traditional choirs or congregational hymn singing. But more conservative churches are playing a dangerous game restarting before it's safe: While mainline churches may have a problem with a difficulty to worship in the traditional ways, conservative evangelical churches will get their people killed [emphasis his], or at least lose credibility when they prioritize inflexible worship over sensible congregational care, informed by public health. [BN adds: A generation ago, I would have said that more evangelical and pentecostal churches would have the advantage of intensity i.e. a lot of traditional worshipers just won't return when services restart. I'm not sure that advantage is still true, however.]

I miss informal gathering at coffeehouses
(here, the Early Bird, which managed the best-timed
going-out-of-business ever in early March 2020)

Friday, June 5, 2020

The economy--macro and micro--after the pandemic

Still running: Iowa Running Co. in May 2020

In the halcyon days that were the middle of the last decade, my Corridor Urbanism co-founder Ben Kaplan did a series of what he called Urbanist Goodreads... annotated bibliographies of writing on a particular topic. I am shamelessly stealing this format as a way of starting to sort through the vast array of writing on how the pandemic will affect the future of cities. Today's topic: the future of the economy and work.

The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been huge in the short-term, and may continue huge in the medium-term. The May 2020 report from the Congressional Budget Office forecasts an impact on real gross domestic product at the end of 2020 of negative 7.6 percent, which doesn't struggle back to zero until the end of 2030. GDP is a blunt measure of economic strength, but it certainly indicates tough times for many individuals; state governments have also seen substantial lost income and sales tax revenue (Dadayan 2020).

We began this decade with a bunch of economic questions, even in a long bull market: Can the American economy provide careers and opportunities for all our citizens? (After a ten year bull market, a quarter to a third of Americans were financially fragile, Watkins 2020.) Can governments at all levels find some degree of financial stability? Is ever-rising economic inequality a problem in itself, a symptom of a systemic flaw, or both? Now these are joined by others: Was there a better set of policy responses that could have forestalled some of this damage? (Backward-looking, I know, but possibly useful for next time?) Will there be jobs for everyone who needs one? Will some areas be disinvested as they were after the 1960s? Is there anything government can do at any levels to lessen pain and/or increase resilience? And how will the nature of work change?

The liberal think tank calls for government job creation to accelerate the recovery, although "Many of these jobs will come back as people return to normal life" anyway. Government efforts could include public works jobs, improvements to the unemployment insurance program, and subsidies for private-sector employers, either generally or targeted at certain areas or sectors. The choice of futures seems to be a bleak 2021 with familiar-looking recovery thereafter, or intense government involvement with intriguing but unstated possibilities for the long-term future of work.

Kirston Capps, "The Rent is Getting Paid. How?City Lab, 8 May 2020

May rent payments are by and large getting made, which is something of a miracle. The various shutdowns have thrown a lot of uncertainty at people's financial situations, particularly those with little savings and/or more vulnerable to job loss. The pandemic will seemingly last longer than the federal unemployment insurance and stimulus payments will. Renters' income is one link on a brittle chain that includes the businesses that would hire them and the landlords who depend on their payments for income and maintenance. The article quotes Rutgers University law professor Rachel D. Godsil: "Even [government relief] plans with the best of intentions only defer the problem." Are we heading for a rental housing crisis, then?

Texas, for example, had halted evictions (by judicial action) in March; that ban was lifted May 26, though some local protections remain (Garnham 2020). The article continues: "The number of people who could be impacted by lifting the eviction moratoriums is not known because there's no data available yet to understand who is covered by the patchwork of regulations in the state."

Cities and states face dramatic financial shortfalls in the wake of the coronavirus; the main driver is, depending on your perspective, either lost revenue and increased obligation in this calamity, or irresponsible spending and obligations taken on before the virus hit. This controversy is playing out at the federal level as politicians debate a massive aid package. In any case, the amount state and local governments need in the next two years in order to save their credit totals to hundreds of billions of dollars; without that money there will be immediate impacts on public employment as well as senior living, mass transit, and higher education services. 

The Wall Street Journal reports state and local governments cut 1 million positions in April 2020. A study by a Harvard economist estimates a $1.50-2.00 negative impact on the American economy for every dollar states and localities cut (Harrison 2020 [paywall] via Daily Deduction). Where does the money come from, if not from the national government? Tax increases large enough to make a difference seem unlikely (Zaretsky 2020).

Some towns will not survive as cutbacks are passed down the federal ladder, writes Chuck Marohn in "We're In the Endgame Now for Small Towns" (Strong Towns, 1 June 2020). Analyzing the budget of his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, Marohn finds locally-generated revenue accounts for slightly more than half of the town's 2020 expenditures; removing debt obligations from the table actually makes it less than half. "Brainerd is a ward of the state," he concludes, and worries what will happen when the state government retrenches in the wake of the pandemic and its attendant financial contraction. Smaller towns are in even more perilous shape; large cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul are in better condition but are also cautioned not to risk their prosperity. Writing from Wichita, Russell Arben Fox (2020) argues that the old way of approaching local budgets is more dangerous than ever now.

Lloyd Alter, "Will the Office Be Killed by the Coronavirus?TreeHugger, 5 May 2020

Like many white collar workers, I've spent the last two months working from home, and it has its advantages and disadvantages. So does office work. Do I hanker to return to my college office? Well, I have been showing up there once a week; by prior arrangement, my colleagues are elsewhere. Alter provides the guidelines of one design firm, Bergmeyer of Boston, Massachusetts, which contain (by my count) 17 rules for the conscientious employee to follow in addition to doing their actual job. Alter suggests that in the shadow of the coronavirus there are even more disadvantages to office work and the advantages are hard to take advantage of. It will be interesting to see, he muses, how many people are really, really desperate to get out of the house and how many have decided they would rather keep working from home. But do employees really get to choose? [I hear that employees are now finding all those meetings were wastes of time. Well, guess what? We knew that already... but we weren't the ones calling the meetings!] Maybe it's different for designers, but a lot of our employers own our asses and will put them wherever they want them, particularly if the burden of keeping things sanitary can be put on the employee as well.

Indeed, says Washington Post columnist Helene Olen ("Telecommuting is Not the Future," Washington Post, 21 May 2020), employers in the long run "will likely remember that money spent on real estate is often money well spent" because of better collaboration and better control. Workers, too, might find working-at-work means better work-life separation and feeling more connected/included.

The coronavirus causes some second looks at the fashion for "open" offices, especially after nearly half of workers in a Seoul call center caught the virus in February, but probably will result in revision not abandonment, writes Sarah Holder ("Even the Pandemic Can't Kill the Open-Plan Office," City Lab, 14 May 2020). Expect more space between employees, fewer client drop-ins, smaller or virtual meetings, modular furniture and room dividers, and new air filtration systems, rather than a sudden outbreak of walls.

When I do return to teaching this fall, how will it work? Dr. Wendy Bashant, a former Coe colleague spending the year at Jiaotong University in China, reports on that institution's re-opening last week: hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer everywhere, check-in tents, temperature-taking security gates, students required to stay on campus, social distancing regulations with printed and verbal coaching... but mingling during breaks hard to manage. Can American students behave even that well? I'm thinking about:
  • What am I supposed to do if a student in my class does not abide by social distancing practices?
  • How are we going to manage access and egress to classrooms and buildings?
  • Is Marketing going to put something stupid on my face shield?
These are surely "first world problems," in that I have the luxury to worry about stuff like this instead of how will I eat and where will I live? But few people are truly shielded from economic pain; it gets to us eventually, we're more connected than we think, and we're all better off when the system works for everyone. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

City design after the pandemic

Czech Village, May 2020: Where to pee in the post-pandemic world?

In the halcyon days that were the middle of the last decade, my Corridor Urbanism co-founder Ben Kaplan did a series of what he called Urbanist Goodreads... annotated bibliographies of writing on a particular topic. I am shamelessly stealing this format as a way of starting to sort through the vast array of writing on how the pandemic will affect the future of cities. Today's topic: city design.

The Urbanist movement in city design has had widespread influence in cities around the world. In my town, the core has eliminated one-way streets, sidewalks have been added to neighborhoods that had been without them for decades, there's a much more extensive network of bike lanes and trails, and two years ago we adopted a form-based zoning code for at least a small part of the city. (On the other hand, we still go in big for large-lot subdivisions, franchises, and shopping plazas on four-lane stroads.) Urbanism seeks, for a variety of reasons, to bring people into closer contact with each other.

All of a sudden, we are in a time when closer contact is the friend of the virus and the enemy of public health. How does that get figured into design? Can we still have street life and third places, or must we (for health or consumer demand reasons) spread out again? How can we have a functioning city while avoiding infections? The following pieces range from anticipating urbanist adaptations to the pandemic to deep levels of concern.

Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane, "Big City Downtowns Are Booming, But Can Their Momentum Outlast the Coronavirus?Brookings, 6 May 2020

Mainly an analysis of census data showing continued residential growth in downtown areas of large cities, defined as the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods, and whether this phenomenon can be extended to other neighborhoods in the city--for an extreme example, Chicago's downtown population has grown fivefold since 1980, but the county in which it's located has lost population since 2000--and/or to downtown areas of smaller cities. They conclude, though, by noting the need for cities everywhere to "assuage fears during the coronavirus crisis and build confidence that denser neighborhoods are not threatened by future pandemics." They think they can do this, as the cities' superior infrastructure and concentration of assets will continue to attract residents and businesses, and they have always shown resilience through past crises (citing Campanella and Vale 2020).

Kim Hart, "Coronavirus Derails Plans for Smart City Projects," Axios Cities, 14 May 2020

Since it seems the coronavirus will be with us for awhile, might tech help us manage and sustain the social restart? Maybe not, because projects will cost money cities don't have, and because anything that smacks of monitoring people raises red flags. Sidewalk Labs scrapped a project in Toronto (Hart cites Daly 2020), and survey respondents show a marked ambivalence toward contract tracing if it involves using cellphone data (Hart cites Ipsos 2020). Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff argues the pandemic will create more need for smart cities, and his company is looking at other projects where they could work with local investors to implement some of the features proposed in Toronto (Kiger 2020).

Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane, "Coronavirus Has Shown Us a World Without Traffic. Can We Sustain It?Brookings, 1 May 2020

National and local data show that use of motor vehicles dropped dramatically during the various shutdowns around the country. (In the Cedar Rapids area, driving dropped by more than 2/3 between March 1 and April 24, but by one measure has bounced back since then.) Traffic as well as air cleared, particularly in areas with (a) early shutdowns, (b) high concentrations of information and management workers, and (c) Democratic-leaning politics. We can't survive long with the economy shut down, of course, but can we make some changes to preserve some of the benefits of low traffic? They suggest flexible work schedules and more telecommuting, replacing the excise tax on gasoline with fees for vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and redesigning streets to promote cycling, walking, and public transportation (plugging the advocacy group Smart Growth America). (See also CBC Radio 2020, which includes an interview with urbanist Brent Toderian.)

But there will be pushback, notes Ben German ("Coronavirus is Reshaping Urban Mobility," Axios, 21 May 2020). There's already evidence that driving levels are bouncing back from April's troughs in a big way, as work resumes and people are anxious about the cleanliness of public transportation. "Many transportation planners are concerned that the combination of reduced capacity, as well as fears of using transit in a pandemic world, will result in a shift towards personal vehicles," said Regina Clewlow, CEO of Populus, which provides transportation data analytics to local governments. It's up for grabs (citing Zipper 2020). [My take: Cities like New York, London, and Paris, as well as tech-heavy cities in the western U.S., have strong reasons to keep cars at bay; in other places I expect the car to regain dominance.] 

Another alternative to public transportation is cycling. Electric bicycles are selling fast as another, but, again, while a few large cities are converting significant road space to cycling, they are the exceptions (Ricker and Hawkins 2020).

Architects are looking at retrofitting buildings to make them "COVID-19-ready," including long-term issues with schools and offices as well as immediate work on emergency sites like hospitals and food banks. The goal is to make public spaces "more flexible and adaptable," including more modular features.

Highlights from an Urban Land Institute webinar, "Resilience in the New Normal," featuring an investment manager, a green energy consultant, and developer and author Jonathan Rose. Toward the end of the event, Rose suggested that residences and workplaces would be relatively easy to adapt to public health and public confidence, but the stickler would be transportation: Ultimately, I could see this resulting in more use of autonomous vehicles--semiprivate or shared vehicles that come on demand and move along set courses. That would give people a sense of security and privacy with the efficiency of a mass transport system. Marc Wilsmann, the investment manager, predicted that "Once this is behind us," people will continue to value the advantages of dense urban areas. Panelists also discussed the likelihood of greater attention to air quality in buildings, spreading out workers within office by time as well as space, and--possibly counter-intuitively--continued efforts towards environmental sustainability. [Thanks to Grant Nordby for sending this article my way.]
AbdouMaliq Simone and Edgar Pieterse, New Urban Worlds: Inhabiting Dissonant Times (Polity, 2017)

Written before the pandemic, but with additional resonance now, academic authors look at the challenges facing cities in Africa and Asia, focusing particularly on Kinshasa, Jakarta, and Cape Town. Their challenges are much the same as those facing Western cities, but with weaker institutions, greater extremes of wealth and poverty, and the likelihood of continued explosive population growth. Individuals, unofficial groups, and even governments are described as scrambling and improvising for whatever goods they can acquire in a shifting, dangerous environment. The authors decry top-down solutions, especially those imposed by outsiders ("capital"), and advocate inclusive policy making, multi-faceted solutions (i.e. don't focus on a single silo like housing) and "experimentation" in preference to "a clean slate." They eschew statistical data, perhaps understandably, but the prose is often difficult, particularly for an audience of practitioners. More narrative might have helped accessibility; having read Trevor Noah's Born a Crime (Spiegel and Grau, 2016) helped me.

Where do you go to get some air when every place you go is crowded? This is particularly a problem in bigger cities. The writer suggests most of those cities have golf courses, cemeteries, parking lots, and school campuses that the public could be encouraged to use, and those that are already open could extend their hours later into the night. This seems like a short-term problem for the pandemic, but how short-term is the pandemic going to be? London's walking and cycling commissioner, Will Norman, is expecting multiples of current levels of both through the summer and maybe into the fall. Moreover, "We need to come out of this crisis in a radically different way." Can the public claim more open urban space, and keep it?

Other places might follow Miami's lead in turning golf courses into housing, or that of a Washington, D.C. area developer who has been making townhouses out of retail space (Bivins 2020).

Lloyd Alter, "Rethinking Public Washrooms After the Coronavirus," TreeHugger, 4 May 2020

Pictures of successful urbanism feature crowded outdoor cafes and places to walk dogs, but sooner or later one confronts the banal need to urinate or defecate, and where are the pictures of that? When I spent a sabbatical semester writing downtown a few years ago, I (eventually) found a total of three restrooms that weren't locked. What happens, Alter wonders, when some restroom owners go out of business, and others weary of the task of keeping their cleanliness at pandemic standards. He advocates a national program of self-cleaning restrooms: Montreal's self-cleaning public toilets cost a quarter of a million dollars each (citing CBC News 2018). On the other hand, cities are building highways that cost billions; there is always money for that. 

Can parking lots in the city be converted to more recreational uses?

The Youth Movement and Cedar Rapids

Mt. Vernon, Iowa, is the home of Cornell College  and produced singer-songwriter Dan Bern. It may also be a magnet for well-educated young a...