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The solstice has passed.  Daylight is creeping back.  The new year is almost here.

Tunnel, Coastal Trail, Anchorage
Tunnel, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

2011 has been a pretty good and eventful year, with some big highs (graduating from planning school, moving to Alaska, meeting someone awesome) and a couple lows (mainly, driving my car into a ditch and expensively ruining it).

And reflecting on that (highs and lows) got me thinking about Alaska itself, a place with some pretty serious extremes:  extreme light in the summer and darkness in the winter, extreme cold, extreme distance within its borders and from everything else, and a variety of living things (human and otherwise) that adapt to live in these extremes.  I’m already adapting some coping strategies – vitamin D supplements and a “happy” light!

Things are pretty good right now, but I feel worn out by the end of this year.  Working a lot, eating a lot, missing the sun a lot, woefully behind on things I want to do and keep up with regularly (like this blog).  So call it a resolution if you like, I’d like to focus on achieving better balance in 2012.

Bike Rack, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

Bike Rack, Coastal Trail, Anchorage

At work, this means continuing to be mindful of time management among projects, and to make some time to keep up with those things which languish without good maintenance.  It also means taking some time off work regularly, planning a few awesome vacations (whether or not I actually leave the city limits).

Along with keeping some boundaries around work and play, I would like to balance my time with more hours for photography, blogging, and general creative activity.

It also means balancing “inside” and “outside” time – taking more walks, in all weather … well, most weather.  Maybe learning a new winter activity.

And finally, better balancing my relations with others.  Making sure to spend some quality time alone, more quality time with J, to make time for new friends, and of course to make time to keep up with old friends (even if they are far away).

In general, I’d like to be more intentional about my time and how I use it, so I can stop feeling like I’m constantly fighting against the feeling that it slips away. I’d also like to have a better balance in terms of health – eat better, move better, exist better.

I won’t elaborate on the many profound thoughts one can find on the subject of balance,  but here’s a nice one:

Order is not pressure which is imposed on society from without, but an equilibrium which is set up from within. ~ Adam Cummings

Happy New Year!

Night Falls on the Park Strip, Anchorage

Night Falls on the Park Strip, Anchorage

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Well, I’ve done what’s somewhat difficult to do given that I live in Anchorage … I’ve travelled even further northward!  I’m in Fairbanks for the next couple days to attend the Alaska – American Planning Association conference.

Looking forward to learning more about planning in Alaska, about why there are so many gun and ammo shops around downtown, and what this place looks like in the daylight!  It was already dark when the plane landed around 5PM, and will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future.

I decided not to bring the camera on this trip (and can hopefully head up to Fairbanks again in warmer – or colder – weather!) but will post some thoughts after I return!

Happy November, everyone.  I’m hoping it’s a happy one.

Hi everyone.  So, a few updates:

  • I got a job and am moving to Anchorage, Alaska.  Yeah.
  • I just participated in Cornell’s graduation ceremony and am at this point 95% (ish) done with my degree.
  • Summer is officially beginning with a potluck at our house on June 1.
  • And I am, for the time being, ratless (RIP Tiny!)

I’ll be back with something more interesting soon!

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

Masters of Regional Planning on the move - Cornell Graduation 2011

Along North Avenue, from Chicago’s west side well into the suburbs, at several major intersections lone men stand on the median strip of concrete – or just on the pavement between the two centermost lanes – holding a stack of newspapers.  They start selling well before most people get in their cars to go to work, but remain there – in all weather – until late morning, when most commuters have already gone by.  They sell the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and possibly the Daily Herald out past the numbered avenues of Melrose Park.  Wearing mesh vests to stay more visible in the low morning light, they are an unusual sight on multi-lane arterial roads, standing in the middle of the street selling newspapers.

As a print subscriber to the New York Times, and previously the Tribune, I never had occasion to buy a paper, but always felt bad for the men on the median, especially on bitter cold Chicago mornings, or when piles of snow had turned to brown slush.  Sure, it’s a job – but surely not a good one.  I did see some people purchase papers while stopped by red lights, holding coins out through their cracked windows, and maybe they had a regular “newsman” at a particular corner.  Even if I hadn’t a subscriber, though, I probably would not have bought one – after all, when would I read it?

The big arguments about why newspaper circulation is declining – a lot – are the usual suspects:  the decline of reading and intellectual pursuit, the rise of the Internet and television news, general phasing out of newspapers as a respectable, reliable, and up-to-the-minute source of information.  These are all surely important, though definitely debatable, particularly the “dumbing of America” argument.  Nor is this a new phenomenon, according to the Washington Post:

“The decline [in circulation in 2005] continued a 20-year trend in the newspaper industry as people increasingly turn to other media such as the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks for information. Newspaper industry officials also blamed the National Do Not Call Registry, which has forced newspapers to rely less on telemarketing to secure subscribers, and a shift in strategy among major newspapers away from using short-term promotions to acquire new readers.” – Washington Post, 5-3-2005

Think about 20 years before 2005:  1985.  No Internet, cable news just starting (if it existed at all, really?), and a culture on the verge of massive media change – MTV launched in 1981, a critical milestone in TV culture.  If the decline in newspaper readership predates the Internet in its popular form by at least 10 years – and certainly more time than its current form – then maybe that’s not the main cause, or at least not the earliest cause.

Back to the newspaper sellers – they’re basically doing the same job that paperboys and others have done for decades, both on street corners in big cities and (in the case of home delivery) at suburban doorsteps.  They are also doing the same work as the coin-operated paper boxes in downtowns and city neighborhoods, where people on their way to the bus, train, or office can stop and buy the morning news.  The difference is, they’re delivering them to people in cars, not out on the sidewalk.  Even those who drop off the paper on the porch in the morning, are mostly doing so for people who will end up driving to work.  And the biggest population of adults who don’t go to work in the morning – the elderly – are also those who tend to still subscribe to the newspaper and read it regularly.

Is it too much of a stretch to speculate that maybe our large-scale shift in transportation behavior, i.e. commuting to work by car to perform primarily white-collar jobs, has heavily contributed to the decline of newspapers?

Sure, the Internet makes news easier to get, iPads and the like are seen as “killer devices” for paper media, and people watch more television than ever for information and entertainment.  But if you think of reading a newspaper as an action requiring time, inclination, and the information source itself, commuting by car (having to drive) eliminates a big chunk of time when the newspaper might otherwise be read – in the morning, when you’re waking up and getting ready for the day, not fully functioning but wanting to find out what’s going on.  Having to drive to work takes up most attention that transit users can give to other things like reading.

It is also significant that the phenomenon of “morning drive” talk shows, and other sources like NPR’s “morning edition,” get wide listenership no matter the actual quality of the show.  You’ve got a captive audience in the car, probably two peak listening times at the beginning and end of the work day, and they want to get at least some idea of what’s going on in the world before they get to where they need to be.

There used to be evening newspapers, to get what happened at the end of the day, and some studies have shown that people tend to spend most time reading on their iPads and Kindles in the early evening.  Perhaps they’ve simply displaced their reading time to be after work, but it also means they cannot read the newspaper (or any other device) on the way home either.

The biggest exception to the newspaper decline seems to be the New York Times, probably the most well-known and respected newspaper in the U.S.  Coincidence that its primary readership, New York City and surrounding area, largely commutes by public transit if they work in the city?  And similarly with D.C.’s Washington Post?  And the Tribune and other papers publish variations on Chicago’s RedEye, a fluffy smaller-format paper that’s free and strategically placed in red boxes by train and bus stops.  It’s just enough information to get you up to speed on big national and local news, and includes some fun things to do that week and a crossword.  It’s free, quick to read, and as far as I can tell, popular with transit riders even if it’s mediocre quality.  It serves the morning-newspaper need.

So, it would be really difficult to actually determine a causal link between the rise in commuting by car and the decline of newspaper readership, and certainly the Internet, TV, and “instant gratification” attitude toward information play no small part in this trend.  But I think it’s worth considering how our land use and transportation decisions have affected other aspects of our lives, and what impact they have on our routines.  The newspaper sellers of North Avenue are a half-hearted attempt to bring the newspaper into our cars, since we cannot get out and get them on the sidewalk.  The problem is, we’ve eliminated the time in our day we used to have to actually sit down and read it.

[I’ve been meaning to post this for months.]

During our group project for the CRP New York City workshop, we specifically studied the neighborhood around the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, an old industrial area around a historically-working waterfront, now becoming a mix of warehouse space, unfinished office and craft spaces, a few residential units (in addition to the large housing project on its edge), and an influx of creative activity like artists, performance venues, trendy bars, and randomly a Holiday Inn Express.

Being generally unfamiliar with New York City and very familiar with Chicago, it struck me that the Gowanus area looks and feels (perhaps smells) a lot like the Clybourn/Goose Island industrial corridor two miles northwest of the Loop.  Both have a lot of old, messy industrial uses – some of which still exist, others which have left only brownfields – along a formerly working waterfront, in Clybourn’s case the Chicago River.

The forces of gentrification and redevelopment have been at work longer in Clybourn, however, perhaps in part because the river is not a heavily, notoriously polluted Superfund site.  While Finkl Steel and a few others have held on in the area, by and large the area along North Avenue and Goose Island has flipped to become retail (and a bit of housing), especially home furnishings like Restoration Hardware, Design Within Reach, and Crate & Barrel.  The two most buzzworthy developments were the flagship Whole Foods (May 2009) right along the river on Kingsbury, and the Apple Store and renovated Red Line stop (Winter 2010) at the edge of the industrial development.

Comparing aerial views of the two highlights their similar scale, location near a highway, and situation between two dense residential neighborhoods – Wicker Park and Lincoln Park in Chicago, Carroll Gardens/Boerum Hill and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, 1000 ft

Clybourn Corridor and Goose Island, Chicago, view at 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

Gowanus Canal and Brooklyn, New York City, 1000 ft

More interesting than their shared history and layout, however, is their possibly shared future – specifically, the degree to which the changes in Clybourn portend how Gowanus will develop as the Superfund cleanup moves forward.  Both already have a large Home Depot, both will soon have a large Whole Foods with several yuppie-friendly gimmicks:  the Chicago store has a lovely riverside patio, a huge food court, and a demonstration kitchen which gets regular use.  The Brooklyn store will have a rooftop garden for ultra-local produce, possibly waterfront access, and likely many WF amenities which are possible when building on such a large lot.  Both also have a kayaking presence, though the Gowanus Dredgers certainly take on more risk than the rental places along the Chicago River!

While neither area had a large residential community per se, both were home to many industrial jobs, probably for over a century in both cases.  And both have those who have some degree of fondness, or at least tolerance, for the messy, smelly, bustling, “wild west” they used to be.  In Chicago’s case, the legacy of shady activity along Weed Street comes to mind; in Gowanus’ case, the area still struggles with some drug activity and prostitution, though probably not the “roving gangs of hookers and drug dealers” claimed to exist by one resident.  The influx of trendy stores and office lofts represents real change, however, and what Clybourn is now, Gowanus likely will be.

What lessons for Gowanus can be drawn from Clybourn?

First, that change is inevitable – even its reputation as one of the most polluted sites in America will, with the help of the federal cleanup, likely not stop development in the long run.  The recession has slowed development city-wide, but New York is an aggressive real estate market, to put it mildly.

Second, that unless told otherwise, developers will probably bring big-box retail as the natural successor to large industrial spaces.  While Clybourn is now cleaner and probably safer, it is not very walkable – big parking lots separate building from street, and North Avenue has narrow sidewalks and fast-moving cars (when they aren’t clogged with traffic).  Given Gowanus’ proximity to dense and growing Brooklyn residential neighborhoods, more work should be done to make it a natural bridge between the two, not a barrier, by keeping some of the large-format stores from building replicas of what we have in the suburbs.

Third, that it is possible to keep some vestiges of the area’s past life, if only symbolic.  Chicago recently finished restoring a small railroad bridge which connects North Avenue with Goose Island, now a pedestrian walking path (but with “Live Rail” signs, which I’m not sure actually mean anything).  The Whole Foods and kayak rental places allow access to the water, but the height of the bank makes it clear that this is not another North Avenue Beach.  The Goose Island brewery, Smith & Hawken, and several other stores occupy old industrial warehouses which have been retrofitted, though many of the retail buildings (and certainly the NoHo residential tower) are new.  Although most of Gowanus’ old industrial buildings might not be worth saving for public health or financial reasons, keeping as much as possible of the old brick and stone buildings can at least maintain the area’s character, which is what has attracted much of the new activity in the first place.

The planner is, of course, going to conclude that Gowanus needs better planning.  But in this case, and based on what has already happened along the Clybourn Corridor in Chicago, it seems to be true.  Change will happen, and the area will likely not remain industrial, except perhaps at its south end toward the Gowanus Bay.  Once the Canal itself becomes a water amenity rather than an environmental liability, it will become a desirable place to be; the large, underused lots are rare in New York and will become prime locations for suburban-style retail, unless more guidelines are put into place ahead of time to create denser, more walkable development which benefits the neighborhood.  Taking the good aspects of Clybourn and learning from the bad, Gowanus can perhaps become the same, only better.

I’m taking an Organizational Behavior class this semester, and at the heart of the class is a series of tensions that all organizations face in deciding how to go about their work.  These tensions aren’t problems which can be solved, but basically a series of choices along a two-ended spectrum – for example, whether to focus on being profitable (exploitation) or innovative (exploration), or to structure themselves with formal or informal roles and processes.  Organizations don’t just do one or the other, but there are generally tradeoffs associated with each choice which may or may not work well for what the organization is trying to accomplish, and what other choices they’ve made.

This made me think of another tension which manifests in a variety of situations, one often on my mind (though not always in so many words) and certainly important to individual members of any group:

Is it more valuable to achieve an end, emphasizing the efficiency of completing the job, or have the process be valuable for those involved, emphasizing the agency of group members?

This is an open question, and a dilemma which gets at the heart of urban planning, among other things.  Sometimes the choice is clear.  A task needs to get done quickly and accurately, so a group delegates that task to the most competent person, or the leader takes on the task him/herself.  Or, a task is used as a learning experience for a new initiate or often a child, and it is more important that the doer gains experience than that the task is done in a particular way or to a certain standard.  In most situations, however, these two goals require very different means to reach the same end.  A project can be structured with decision making power concentrated in a few positions, a strictly-defined process emphasizing results and resource management over creativity, and division of labor according to who can already best complete the tasks.  Conversely, a project can have the same end result but be deliberated over by all equally-contributing members, leave the design of process to individuals or subgroups given targets to reach, and teams formed to emphasize members’ learning new skills or developing new processes.

Neither is better than the other, especially given the goals and constraints of an individual situation, but they have different underlying priorities.  Is it better to keep resources to a strict budget, or allow for some “waste” with the potential pay-off of new ideas or future savings?  Could time spent discussing a decision be better spent by instead giving everyone a specific role?  And perhaps most fundamentally, is the product of this project more important than the participants’ experience of completing it?

Debates about regulation and autonomy reflect this tension.  While those who advocate for the free market (versus centralized planning in the form of government regulation, land use controls, taxation, etc.) would argue that the system is more efficient because it responds more readily to changing resource conditions through supply and demand, in reality it is not clear (to me) that the free market always produces maximum efficiency.  The example which comes to mind is the privatization of city bus services in England, resulting in two bus systems running essentially the same routes in the town of Oxford, neither honoring the other’s ticket stubs.  A more consistent underlying assumption of the free market seems to be that regardless of their ends, rational beings are best left to act autonomously, and it is their pursuit of these ends rather than the ends themselves which will collectively create a functional system.  In terms of resource management, it may be more efficient to control and selectively allocate scarce resources, or to allow unilateral decision making rather than engaging in an endless democratic process, but these diminish the agency of individual participants, and may be less a problem of inefficiency than of “inautonomy.”

The history of urban planning seems to symbolize this tension, particularly the division between large-scale planning projects such as urban renewal or Moses-style infrastructure building, and participatory planning projects like community development, constituent empowerment, and environmental justice.  While the outcome is not unimportant, it is the process which, time-consuming and open-ended, grants a sense of agency to the previously-disenfranchised and ultimately brings more people into the conversation.  Making all zoning decisions by local referendum is not efficient, but it (in theory) allows citizens to have a say in what happens in their community.  Rationing the town’s water supply or mandating total greywater recycling  would (in theory) diminish waste, but political implementation would be extremely difficult insofar as it impedes on individuals’ rights to use water on their own property.

This tension plays out even on a small scale in a group meeting.  Who sets the agenda?  How are decisions made and tasks delegated?  Is it more important to run through the to-do list to meet a deadline, or to allow people to choose their own tasks and decide how they will get them done?  What is the individual member’s experience of working in the group and feeling empowered, and how much does this matter?  How much does it matter that they are given an opportunity designed to let them learn something new?

I put to you the idea that this tension is present, though rarely explicit, in any situation in which a group must somehow make a decision and/or complete a project.  Furthermore, I suggest that many group conflicts, particularly between a group’s leader and its members, may be traced to some form of this tension.  Where two or more individuals have very different views about which takes priority, the dispute may instead surface about micromanaging, time wasted in roundabout discussions, dictatorial decision making, or being pigeonholed into a certain role.

It might therefore be helpful to also talk about a group conflict in these terms, something I haven’t tried yet in this context but which may get past the surface matter and at the assumptions behind it.  Worth a try!

Today was a rainy, cold, up-and-down, good-and-bad day, but most decidedly it was a lesson in patience.

I visited UHC’s Joy Garden for the first time, intending to start work but realizing the rain got in the way.  Talked to Nick, the designer/project lead for the garden, who spoke of it as very much a work in progress.  He highlighted all the work that had already been done, and that the site had clearly come a long way from being a patch of salty dirt, as it had been when they started.  His timeline, however, remained relatively long.  By the end of this summer they would hopefully be finished, replacing the existing plants with others as opportunity arose, re-installing pieces as needed, but the salinity of the soil meant that they couldn’t really start growing food (the end goal) until at least two years from now – likely after UHC turns over the garden completely to the school.  For me, a volunteer only for this summer, that sounded like a long time; but in the grand scheme of things, it was just a few more seasons for what was meant to be a long-lasting garden.  For the students working on the garden, especially, many would likely not see it completed until after they’d graduated.  The most important part was not the finished product, but the learning experience.

Then I headed down to the Bridgeport area to visit Bubbly Dynamics, a.k.a. the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center.  John, the owner and main rehabber of the building, showed me around from green roof to basement, highlighting various reused materials, the ultra-efficient heating system, the variety of tenants’ activities, and some of the history of the building (much unknown) and the industrial area as a whole.  We also talked about The Plant, his next project, which will transform much of an old meatpacking building into an urban farm and light manufacturing space.  Assuming all goes well with the closing, he said, “then the next ten years are laid out for me in that building.”  He also mentioned another industrial building, undervalued but with great potential, he was keeping an eye on in the hopes of buying someday.  Again, I was thinking that it all sounded like such a long time!  Having only the summer to lend a hand, I was eager to start doing something – but with a much larger plan and process at work, and with a decade-long time frame, John was (rightly) in no hurry.  Rehabbing the building would be a complex challenge, but there was plenty of time to figure everything out.

Because my car apparently hates Chicago (and has developed some mostly-inexplicable problem every time I come back here), the transmission was misbehaving all afternoon, even after an oil change and trans fluid check.  So I headed back up north to the nearest Subaru dealer.  Traffic along I-94 was terrible from one end to the other:  moving about 15 mph the whole time (and that’s if we weren’t stopped), and non-stop rain.  It took me about 2 hours to go 10 miles, on. the. highway.  But I had nowhere to be in a hurry, and idling along was probably better for the car than having to switch gears constantly on city streets, so I grudgingly rode it out.

The dealer’s service area was closing up for the night, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear the verdict (and cost).  Luckily, I was able to take the bus, or rather two buses, home.  More waiting, but the rain had stopped.

And finally, when I arrived home, I had received a couple answers (via Email) that I was hoping would show up eventually.

So today’s lesson is:  while time can seem so limited, and life’s small hassles so large when you’re in the midst of them, there is a longer timeline you’re moving along.  A bigger goal to work for.  A larger world to be a part of.  And there is virtue in striving to keep the longer future on your immediate horizon, blocked as it may be by things of the moment.  Or, “good things come to those who wait.”  So, patience!

Work in Progress

Work in Progress

I felt compelled to write about this, because The Daily Beast did not.  They recently featured the results of Richard Florida’s “Top 25 Cities for College Graduates”, finding that Ithaca, New York was #1.  That’s right, Ithaca.

What?

Now, this list was supposed to highlight where recent graduates are likely to be comfortable settling:  finding a job, being around other young (single) people, and other amenities.  So it might surprise you that Ithaca is first, a bunch of other college towns are also high on the list (regardless of whether they’re in a big city or not), places like New York and DC are middling, Los Angeles is pretty low on the list, and Chicago does not make it at all.  Also, much as it pains me to say it … Albany (NY) makes the list, but Portland (OR) doesn’t?  What?

Granted, some choices like Austin or Boston make a lot of sense.  But Ithaca?!  So, let’s look at Florida’s criteria:

“These rankings are based on an index of nine statistical indicators … measures in the rankings include:

  • Presence of twentysomethings (20-24 year olds) in the population
  • Singles—measured as the share of unmarried people
  • Earnings potential—measured as average salary
  • Unemployment rate
  • College educated workforce—the share of the workforce with a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Rental housing—having an abundant, available stock of rental housing is key. We measured this as the share of all housing made up of rental units.
  • Youth-oriented amenities—like bars, restaurants, cafes, sports facilities and entertainment venues.
  • Creative capital–we use this to capture the creative energy of a place. It’s measured as the share of employed artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, designers, and entertainers in the workforce.
  • Openness–A region’s openness to new and different kinds of people reflects a lack of barriers and willingness to let newcomers, including young people, have a go. Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community
  • Affordability–The overall rankings do not take housing costs into account. Generally speaking, new college grads are renters and can easily share apartments to reduce costs. It’s also difficult to get a handle on the full living costs borne by young people—some communities have accessible mass transit; in others, new grads must buy a car (and pay for insurance, maintenance, gas, and parking).

“We decided to break out an additional index to account for affordability. This index includes a variable for rent levels—median contract rent. It weights affordability at 25 percent of the overall index value, and lets the other nine indicators account for the remaining 75 percent.”

Sounds pretty good, right?  Except all of those exactly describe COLLEGE TOWNS – more specifically, towns dominated by a large university and who have attracted a significant population to the town in the first place.  Here’s how it measures up with Ithaca:

  • Presence of twentysomethings – Cornell has something like 20,000 students, and the city itself has 60,000 total.  You do the math.
  • Singles – see above; how many full-time Ivy undergrads are married?
  • Earnings potential – average salary?  You’re either earning nothing, an Ivy League professor, or you can afford to live in Ithaca.  Most of the (lower-income) service staff live well outside the city itself, because they can’t afford it.
  • Unemployment rate – again:  COLLEGE TOWN.  If you’re in college, you’re not unemployed because you’re not seeking work.  If you’re in grad school, ditto.  If you’re retired or the spouse of a professor, double ditto.  If you’re working at a coffee shop and on a quest to “find yourself,” don’t even count the number of dittos.
  • College educated workforce – … seriously?  Tompkins County has something like 50% adults 25+ with a bachelors or above.
  • Rental housing – … again, seriously?  Ithaca is 70% rental housing.  There’s no way any normal city could compete with that stat.
  • Youth-oriented amenities – COLLEGE TOWN.  It’s even got a whole freaking neighborhood called Collegetown.
  • Creative capital – this is pretty much code for “College Town or Big City.”  It is a good point; young people like culture and amenities.  But again, you can’t compete with a huge university for cultural offerings (AND the money to pay their honoraria).
  • Openness – “Our measure is the share of gays and lesbians and foreign-born residents in a community.”  Kind of a fair point on the first part, but DUHHHH on the second.  Especially a high-level (high-cost) school like Cornell.  Again, how could a large city really compete with that?
  • Affordability – it’s true that college students (or recent grads) split rent efficiently.  But they’re going to find cheap rent in college towns, and very few rental options in all but big cities.  And if that’s the only measure of affordability… I feel compelled to mention that I know of someone (via Craigslist sublet posting) who has actually paid $1800/mo for a 1 BR in (Collegetown) Ithaca.  ITHACA, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

So as far as I can tell, Florida came up with a brilliant way for identifying college towns, which I’m pretty sure you can do with a short stint on Google Maps.

What would make this index better?

  • Measuring how many other EMPLOYERS are in the area – since the damn list is supposed to be all about employment after school.  A college town is going to be well-employed because everyone already works at the college.  Those out on the job market, while sometimes they find jobs with the school, are more likely looking for work at another company or non-profit.  Look at who ELSE is hiring.  Ithaca, for one, has very little to offer a new grad, unless you want to stay with Cornell; want to work in agriculture; or happen to get a job with one of the various small companies in the area.  It doesn’t have much on a big city, and certainly is not a bountiful cornucopia of job opportunity.
  • Along the same lines, maybe measuring the number of start-up businesses – like the Boulder description implies, or like Silicon Valley shows, that is a more solid indicator of creative, educated talent making a start.
  • Measuring not college-age students, but householders (single or otherwise) from 25-35.  This covers people who actually stuck around after school, and who are not living with parents.  If you could cross-reference with educational attainment, so much the better.
  • If possible, better household ownership stats – are people right out of school buying condos (or townhouses or duplexes), not family-sized houses?  That seems a great indicator to me, knowing several people who have done that very thing.
  • Expand the definition of “creative.”  Florida seems to limit it to artists (visual, performing, etc) but those are very hard to measure and don’t include a broad enough spectrum of “interesting jobs” which I think he’s attempting to get at.  Might I suggest number of self-employed people?  Or number of locally-owned businesses?  Or perhaps a more qualitative rating based on festivals, annual events, concerts, etc?  Or whether or not they have some local equivalent of a Metromix events site?
  • Florida skirts around this, but you almost want to think he would include “Number of Democrats” in the ranking – the “Openness” category seems to want to go there, but doesn’t.  Maybe “Percentage Who Voted For Obama”?  (Note:  this one wouldn’t actually be very good, but who knows, maybe there’s some kind of crazy-high correlation after all.)
  • And finally, you could use a silly little indicator like “number of places to get a latte” or “price of a cup of coffee” or “frequency of recycling pickup” to get at the question of diversity.  You could even include something like Walkscore.  Something that doesn’t skew so heavily toward a college town (or big city) like the gay/lesbian and foreign-born indicators do.

In conclusion:  Seriously, Florida.  Ithaca?  Have you been to Ithaca?  Or more importantly, have you ever looked for a job in Ithaca?  It’s pretty and all, but … seriously.  Ithaca.

On the way to class this morning, I was thinking about routes (I have a choice of 3 bridges to get to campus, whose convenience vary with destination) and street networks.  One of the things we’ve discussed in class is the Problem Of Congestion – primarily with car traffic, but certainly an issue in other modes as well.

In class last semester, the professor raised an interesting question:  is congestion really a bad thing?  One argument is that congestion is not always negatively correlated with quality of life – Paris is congested, but people seem to like it.  Another is that congestion can serve (to some degree) as a self-regulating mechanism in traffic patterns:  for those who don’t have to, travelling at peak time is a pain and a deterrent, keeping a certain number of cars off the road or people off the sidewalks or passengers off the buses and trains.

As I approached the classroom building, I saw more people travelling along the same route, including many of my classmates, coming from either of the two main routes from west campus to the building.  As we approached a central destination, everyone who had taken various routes from wherever they were, were now converging along the two pathways, simulating a bottleneck into the building.  It wasn’t that more people had suddenly appeared on campus, but that everyone wanted or needed to be in this particular spot.

It made me think that maybe this tolerance of congestion can be taken a step further:  it is not a problem, but an inherent property of our social system.  It manifests in where people want to live, where they want to go, even what they want to buy (why else would popular items sell out when substitutes are available?).  Therefore it cannot be “cured” or prevented or even almost-completely reduced, simply understood and (hopefully) managed.

Congestion, or tendency toward congestion, is a property of both space and time.  Many people tend to want to go to the same places, at more or less the same times, and there are only so many ways to get there.  Even on a perfectly-networked grid system, in which many combinations of route segments are possible, most people would tend to choose particular routes because they are most direct, have the least obstructions, or are easiest to travel along arterial paths.  And neither are all destinations equal – rarely does everyone want to be in the same place at the same time, many people want to be in only a few places.

One could argue that congestion is made worse by our current transportation system, by having one central destination or several destinations which aren’t well connected, or by our weekday, work day schedule in which most people need to travel at the same times.  I think it’s deeper than that, however:  whatever its manifestations in specific travel patterns, it comes down to the simple fact that, as William H. Whyte said, people tend to be near other people.  We tend to want to cluster together; to be in the middle of things; to get to the center as quickly and easily as possible; and to be part of larger social phenomena.  Supposed “solutions” to congestion like flex time, telecommuting, or increased transportation capacity can only go so far to alter a pretty fundamental fact about human behavior.

What I’m saying certainly isn’t new, but it’s a view that seems to be absent- or at least not prominent – in discussions of transportation systems.  Congestion is not a problem to be fixed, but an inherent property of our system called Society.  We should find ways to make it better for everyone, but we can’t simply treat it as a waste.  It is, I would argue, a part of what it means to be a social creature.

P.S. – I had to go for the old dictionary move, as I was curious what the -gest part of congestion is.  According to the OED, the earliest definition of congestion is:

The action of gathering or heaping together in a mass; a crowding together; accumulation (1563).

Only later – fittingly, in the mid-19th century, in the middle of the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanization – did it become:

A crowding together or accumulation which disorganizes regular and healthy activity: congested or overcrowded condition, as of population, traffic, etc (1868).

While the tone of both of these definitions is neutral to negative, rather than positive, both also highlight the social nature of congestion.  Only later did the word come to really imply a problem.

I was skimming a Brookings report on “job sprawl,” the decentralization of job distribution in several metro areas.  The study period was 1998-2006, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pattern continues today.  According to the report, Chicago was one of the most rapidly decentralizing, with 68.7% of jobs more than 10 miles outside the city center.

In my limited experience with and knowledge of employment in the Chicago area, that sounds about right.  Certainly there are a number of jobs in the city:  financial firms, consulting firms, law firms, city and federal offices, design and architecture firms, etc.  Not to mention the usual laundry list of retail and service jobs.  And while there still are industrial operations in the city, many have either gone out of business or are now centered out in places like Maywood or near O’Hare.

As a result, there is a great deal of reverse commuting from city to suburbs – most of my co-workers chose to live in the city, even if it meant a 15 to 25 mile one-way commute.  There is also a great deal of commuting between suburbs, such as from Evanston to Elmhurst or from Arlington Heights to Libertyville.  And unfortunately, most of the El lines don’t go beyond city limits; the Metra is set up in a hub-and-spoke system which is only useful for those commuting to downtown or along the same train line; and the buses take forever if you’re going 20 miles (assuming, like the El or Metra, they run along the route you need to go).

I’m not sure what the solution to all this is – better transit networks, more incentives for businesses to stay in the city center, or better housing options to convince people to move closer to work.  If the trend continues, it will certainly have an impact not only on things like cities’ commercial tax bases and economic health, but it will also make driving commutes worse and worse.

Read the full report

Elizabeth Kneebone, “Job Sprawl Revisited:  The Changing Geography of Metropolitan Employment”