We are now living in the anthropocene – the period in which humans have begun to shape the earth’s geology, ecosystems, and climate. Vox’s Brad Plumer recently compiled a set of images that vividly illustrate humanity’s transformative effect: “15 before-and-after images that show how we’re transforming the planet“. Urban growth, energy extraction and generation, the damming and diversion of rivers, climate change:
14) Solar farms sprout up in California
The next big environmental challenge is global warming, which will likely prove much harder to stop than the hole in the ozone layer. It will entail revamping our entire energy system; switching away from fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas; and seeking out cleaner sources.
Some places are already taking steps along those lines. The image above shows the growth of the Topaz Solar Farm in central California, a 550-megawatt plant consisting of 9 million panels across 9.5 square miles. It’s a modest step in shifting the state toward cleaner energy.
Even so, some environmentalists have opposed the project, arguing that solar farms need a lot of land and fences, hindering the movement of the federally protected San Joaquin kit fox. It’s a reminder that even efforts to reduce our environmental footprint in one area can lead to unexpected impacts elsewhere.
As we change nature, we also change the way we live. Yonah Freemark and Steven Vance of The Transport Politic have put together an interesting interactive map showing every rapid transit project proposed or underway in large North American cities. Here’s Seattle, a city with a similar size and geography to Auckland, getting excited about dedicated bus lanes:
What’s equally cool is that they have included a “what if” function that illustrates what could have been if previous rapid transit extensions, such as this 1968 regional rail plan for Seattle, hadn’t been cancelled:
The shape of our cities affects the shape of our society and the prospects for our citizens. A new research paper by Reid Ewing, Shima Hamidi, James Grace, and Yehuda Dennis finds that “urban sprawl stunts upward mobility“:
The study examined potential pathways through which sprawl may have an effect on mobility and uses mathematical models to account for both direct and indirect effects of sprawl on upward mobility. The direct effects are through access to jobs and the indirect effects are through integration of different income classes.
“The result is that upward mobility is signiﬁcantly higher in compact areas than sprawling areas,” said Ewing. “As the compactness index for a metropolitan area doubles, the likelihood that a child is born into the bottom fifth of national income distribution will reach the top firth by age 30 increases by 41 percent.”
CityLab’s Eric Jaffe reports more on the details of the study. Places like Seattle and San Francisco, which are relatively compact, offer much better prospects for upward mobility than dispersed metropolises like Atlanta. Putting up barriers to urban intensification will also tend to put up barriers to social mobility.
Ewing et al’s study coincides with another landmark study on the impact of planning regulations on economic segregation within cities. UCLA researchers Michael Lens and Paavo Monkkonen examines which types of regulations are associated with greater segregation. CityLab’s Richard Florida reviews four key findings from their research:
1. Density restrictions isolate the wealthy
Density restrictions work to increase segregation, mainly by exacerbating the concentration of affluence. This contradicts the commonly held belief that exclusionary zoning leads to the concentration of the poor. Instead, the authors find that the main effect of density restrictions is to enable the wealthy to wall themselves off from other groups…
2. Restrictions in both cities and suburbs matter
The economic segregation of metros is significantly higher in places where cities (not just suburbs) employ more stringent land use and density restrictions. This finding adds important nuance to the conventional view that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning in the suburbs. Density restrictions in the city not only lead to higher housing prices (think San Francisco), but to greater economic segregation across a metro as a whole. As the authors write, “density restrictions are a culprit in the social fragmentation of metropolitan areas and should be relaxed where possible.”
3. Local government restrictions contribute to segregation
The precise way in which the government is involved in land use regulation is a key contributor to segregation. Many people assume that segregation is the consequence of exclusionary zoning, broadly speaking. But the new study finds that segregation varies by both the nature and extent of government involvement, as well as the type of land use restriction. Notably, the authors discover that segregation is not associated with a broad measure of land use restriction overall, but is instead the result of more specific types of regulation and restrictiveness.
4. State involvement can temper segregation
…Importantly, the study shows that greater involvement at the state level can help temper some of the most damaging effects of exclusionary zoning. The authors write:
“Greater pressure from multiple local interest groups regarding residential development exacerbates the tendency to segregate by income. At the same time, income segregation is ameliorated by a higher level of involvement from state institutions. Taken together, these findings suggest that land use decisions cannot be concentrated in the hands of local actors.”
These findings are counterintuitive in some respects: they suggest that the affordable housing offered by low-density flatland cities is an imperfect substitute for affordable housing in more compact cities. Consequently, it’s likely that we have underestimated the long-run costs of exclusionary zoning and restrictions on density.
In the presence of complexity, making policy on the basis of rules of thumb, intuitive judgments, or simple models of behaviour can go wrong. Real-world data and sound analysis is essential as it can provide a useful check against these types of errors. So I was glad to hear that economists are getting more empirical. Bloomberg View’s Justin Fox analyses “how economics went from theory to data“:
Daniel S. Hamermesh of the University of Texas documented this shift in a 2013 article in the Journal of Economic Literature. In 1963, 1973 and 1983, the majority of the articles published in the American Economic Review, Journal of Political Economy and Quarterly Review of Economics, three of the field’s most influential journals, were works of theory — with theory’s dominance peaking in 1983. By 2011, theory’s share was down to 27.9 percent.
One cause seems pretty clear. The biggest shift toward empirical work occurred between 1983 and 1993, and it was between 1983 and 1993 that personal computers became commonplace. That made crunching data much easier for economics professors; the subsequent rise of the Internet and digitization of much that was once analog in the economy opened up a huge new array of data for them to crunch.
On a completely different note, here’s a sign of the times:
One of the reasons for the project’s popularity is that it is visually interesting to be on. The ground is pink, the view is constantly changing and frequently spectacular, and there are lights and stuff. By contrast, Colin Ellard discusses “why boring streets make pedestrians stressed and unhappy” in Aeon:
In 2006, the Danish urbanist Jan Gehl observed that people walk more quickly in front of blank façades; compared with an open, active façade, people are less likely to pause or even turn their heads in such locations. They simply bear down and try to get through the unpleasant monotony of the street until they emerge on the other side, hopefully to find something more interesting…
In Gehl’s terms, a good city street should be designed so that the average walker, moving at a rate of about 5km per hour, sees an interesting new site about once every five seconds…
Merrifield and Danckert suggest that exposure to even a brief, boring experience is sufficient to change the brain and body’s chemistry in such a way as to generate stress. It might seem extreme to say that a brief encounter with a boring building could be seriously hazardous to one’s health, but what about the cumulative effects of immersion, day after day, in the same oppressively dull surroundings?
But if you’re not interested in making an interesting place, here’s a quick guide to making a boring one. Reddit has helpfully created the “trashy suburban highway starter pack“:
Lastly, the big news of the week was the Government getting on board with a 2018 start date for the City Rail Link’s major tunneling works. (Preliminary works on Albert Street are starting shortly.) Matt wrote a wrap-up post on Thursday, and others have also commented as well. At Pundit, Tim Watkins highlights how effective Len Brown has been as a “lame duck” mayor:
Brown’s greatest failure and subsequent political demise has, ironically, ensured his greatest legacy and made it easier for National to move early. Yet undoubtedly, it’s under Brown’s leadership that Auckland has been able to force Wellington’s hand.
Yet some big, chunky politics remains: How to pay for this plan. And not just on the council’s side. The government has to figure out how this project impacts its debt promises.
A lot of the coverage of the Government’s CRL announcement has focused on how it has “backed down”, or highlighted the remaining naysayers who have been politically isolated by the decision. I don’t think this is the right way to frame the decision, for two reasons
First, it is hard for politicians to reverse course in public – but it is very important for them to be willing to do so. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Politicians who change their minds because of new evidence should be celebrated, not mocked.
Second, the decision vindicates the efforts of the many people who put CRL on the agenda before the Government picked it up. CRL is popular because politicians and activists across the political spectrum campaigned for it – e.g. Len Brown and Penny Hulse, the Greens, Labour, and even NZ First, Generation Zero, business groups like the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, and (ahem) Transportblog. It is ready to construct due to the fine work done by Auckland Transport and Auckland Council. These people have built a consensus about the future of Auckland’s rapid transit system that did not exist four years ago. Fine work indeed.