Welcome back to Sunday Reading. This week I want to start off with three articles about inclusion. The Project for Public Spaces argues that equity and inclusion lie at “the heart of placemaking”:
Placemaking, a collaborative process by which we (residents, architects, activists, community leaders and planners alike) shape our public realm together, is fundamentally about inclusion and shared community ownership.
Rather than watching passively as private developers or public agencies determine the use and value of a neighborhood’s public spaces, placemaking enables citizens to create and maintain their own places, while highlighting unique strengths and addressing specific challenges. While some developments are built around and profit from the idea of exclusivity, placemaking is about increasing “quality of life” and economic opportunity for everyone, not just a privileged few. We believe that cities and regions can facilitate growth while also maintaining their authentic character and preserving the people, as well as the socio-cultural values, that are already in place.
Nonetheless, the physical, social and cultural landscapes of many local places remains caught between danger, disinvestment and a lack of opportunity, on the one hand, and the Pyrrhic victory of “neighborhood improvement” through gentrification, on the other. Within communities, accessibility remains a tremendous obstacle for many. Women and children in communities across the globe still struggle to find safe places in which to play, socialize, and participate. Many citizens in lower-income neighborhoods still lack access to green space in close proximity to their homes.
There’s a balance to be struck with this kind of argument. Often, communities have the knowledge and motivation to improve their places, but lack the resources to fix the big problems. So the question is how to bring together outside resources – which could come from government or private investment – and local knowledge and passion.
But what do you do when communities change? How about welcoming the newcomers and learning to live alongside them? That can happen even in unexpected places, as Robert Samuels writes in the Washington Post: “How to become an American: Syrian refugees find a home in Trump country“:
A few blocks away from Aljasem, John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner, lives in a complex of low-rise apartments in a neighborhood where American flags flapped on porches. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Dutcher said he was “one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque. I never acted on it, but I played it in my head.”
“I hated Muslims,” he said.
For years, Dutcher’s neighbors were meth addicts and rowdy alcoholics. Slobs. In June, a Syrian family who spoke no English moved in. Another family moved in after that, then another. Now there are six.
Soon enough, Dutcher said, empty bottles in the hallway were replaced with children’s bicycles. The loud arguments of a drug-addicted couple were replaced by the sounds of children’s laughter.
“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher said. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.”
Through interpreters, he learned about the families’ stories of loss and fleeing war. It softened his stance on Islam and led him to question some of what Trump was saying. Around refugees, he never felt safer.
“I used to be afraid when the meth addicts were here,” he said. “Now I don’t even look to see who’s knocking on my door. I know it will be someone with a plate of food or a kid asking me to fix his bike.”
In related news, several recent studies have found that people who live in more diverse areas are more tolerant, even if they don’t interact much with their neighbours of different race or religion. My takeaway is that if you want a hateful city, first build a segregated city.
Inclusion also matters in political participation. In the NZ Herald, Lizzie Marvelly comments on the makeup of Parliament: “Younger MPs add buzz to the Beehive“:
In an election year, it’s almost guaranteed that young people will be dragged through the mud for one reason or another.
We’ll be smeared as the unworthy recipients of a “bribe” that won the election (years after the fact); the useless, lazy cohort that couldn’t be bothered voting; the self-centred, me-me-me generation that could easily own houses if we simply stopped eating smashed avocados and watching Sky TV; or the idealistic, radical children who should listen to people who know better.
There are a number of similarly unflattering accusations that we could fling at our elders, but we’re generally either silenced in absentia or too polite to offer a harsh dose of reality.
I’ve had it up to my eyeballs.
For example, recently, political commentator Bryce Edwards (44) stepped up to the plate to give his opinion on youth representation in politics on TVNZ’s Breakfast.
“I just don’t know if we want a Parliament just full of 20 and 30-year-olds,” he said, ignoring the fact that Parliament is far from full of 20 and 30-year-olds.
“It’s a good thing to have diversity,” Edwards remarked, without a trace of irony. “It would be a mistake if we just have the young people coming in.”
Immediately after the 2014 election, according to pollster David Farrar, there were 23 MPs in their 20s and 30s, with only two 20-somethings in the entire Parliament.
A significant number of those 23 have now entered their 40s, and only one (Todd Barclay) is still in his 20s.
How having 23 MPs under 40 in a Parliament of 121 – a Parliament with a median age of 50 – would make it “full” of young people, I’ll never know.
A bit of further data from Green MP Julie Anne Genter:
— Julie Anne Genter (@JulieAnneGenter) February 11, 2017
Anyway, enough of that. The best article I’ve read in the last few weeks was on the causes and consequences of high home prices. In the New York Times, Conor Dougherty explains “Why falling home prices could be a good thing“:
We would still see homes of different sizes and styles — condos in some places, single-family homes in others — depending on the market in each city. A New York home would be smaller than one in, say, Houston.
And prices would still vary from place to place, based on demand and geography. It’s easier to build in Phoenix (plenty of flat land), and harder in San Francisco (lots of hills and nearby water). But while building in the San Francisco metro area is more expensive than in other places, it’s not that expensive. By the paper’s calculations, a home in the San Francisco area should cost around $281,000.
The actual price for a standard home in the area is more like $800,000 (using 2013 data). The paper argues that most of that difference is caused by regulatory hurdles like design and environmental reviews that can add years to a project’s timeline and suppress the overall housing supply. The result is overpayment on a grand scale for the few homes that do get built.
Don't get on the wrong side of a lady cyclist! (Via Facebook) pic.twitter.com/HCAzE7RwbY
— Bike Auckland (@BikeAKL) February 17, 2017
High home prices in prosperous parts of the US appear to contribute to lower rates of within-country migration, and hence worse outcomes for people exposed to asymmetric shocks such as trade liberalisation. In Forbes, Adam Millsap writes that “people are giving up rather than moving to opportunity – and that’s not good“:
The papers by Autor et al. paint a pretty bleak picture of life in areas more exposed to Chinese imports. More economic hardship—fewer jobs and lower wages—seems to be harming people’s health, especially that of less educated people. In light of all this, it’s reasonable to think that people must be leaving these areas for greener pastures.
But they’re not. Despite the economic decline, Autor et al. find little evidence that people are moving out. Other researchers have also found that people rarely move to areas with more economic opportunity after a negative economic shock. In one recent study, economists Ryan Greenaway-McGrevy and Kyle Hood examine data from 1990 to 2012 and find that local job creation, not out-migration, is the main driver of local economic recovery in the U.S., but that even partial recovery can take up to 20 years, or approximately an entire generation.
So what has happened to the people living in these areas? If employment opportunities and wages declined but hardly anyone left, many of them must be relying on private charity and/or government assistance for subsistence, and Autor et al. do find evidence of this. Exposure to Chinese imports had a negative effect on labor force participation and a positive effect on the use of government assistance such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), federal income assistance and food stamps.
We should expect more of this sort of thing as the global economy evolves (or disintegrates). Falling trade barriers and increased ease of long-distance travel and communication have put some industries (and some cities) underwater while invigorating others. But distance isn’t dead: paradoxically, the ability to communicate vast reams of data at the touch of a button has strengthened the importance of physical proximity in knowledge-intensive service sectors.
In a classic paper, Michael Storper and Anthony Venables investigate the reasons why this is the case: “Buzz: face-to-face contact and the urban economy“. From the abstract:
This paper argues that existing models of urban concentrations are incomplete unless grounded in the most fundamental aspect of proximity: face-to-face contact. Face-to-face contact has four main features: it is an efficient communication technology; it can help solve incentive problems; it can facilitate socialization and learning; and it provides psychological motivation. We discuss each of these features in turn, and develop formal economic models of two of them. Face-to-face is particularly important in environments where information is imperfect, rapidly changing, and not easily codified, key features of many creative activities.
I’ll close with a troubling article from Canterbury. Charlie Mitchell reports (in Stuff) about dairy farmers’ illegal encroachment into public river margins. This is a disgrace and should be addressed sternly by the regulators:
The fringes of some Canterbury rivers have been absorbed into expanding farms, resulting in the loss of thousands of hectares of public land to private development.
The issue – known as “agricultural encroachment” – has happened incrementally over several decades, and is adding to the many pressures facing the region’s internationally significant braided rivers and the rare ecosystems they host.
Environment Canterbury (ECan) research found that nearly 12,000 hectares of Canterbury’s river margins had been taken over by intensive farming between 1990 and 2012.
About 60 per cent of that land was developed through private land sales, but nearly one-quarter was public reserve land effectively privatised and developed.
Authorities in charge of public land all acknowledged that land had been taken and developed without permission.
None of them were able to quantify how much, and in some cases, the encroacher was allowed to keep the land after meeting certain conditions.
That’s it for this Sunday – see you next time!