Saturday, December 17, 2011

What housing affordability really means

Housing affordability doesn’t get a lot of popular attention because it is an abstract concept that gets lost amidst the continuing foreclosure debacle. That’s why a recent report from the Center for Housing Policy titled Paycheck to Paycheck is so very valuable. It actually personifies the relation between income and expenses. Below I’ve used an example that I have employed in my classes recently—between Portland, OR, which is routinely lauded for its growth-management strategies and higher densities; and Phoenix, AZ, which was recently described in a gush of hyperbole as ‘the least sustainable city on the planet’. I’ll write more on this again, as the contrast is a revealing one. In brief, there is little to choose between the two cities; they have similar crime statistics and even similar population densities. The major difference is in terms of economic sustainability—the median cost of housing in the two locations.

I’ve extracted two graphics from the interactive report. The first shows the income required to purchase a median home in Portland, and the ability of an individual in a sample blue collar job or a service position to buy in. The second shows how much more affordable home purchase is in Phoenix, where all the speculative gains of the past decade have been wiped out. [It also shows why working partners and/or roommates are a necessity in the US].

Foreclosures have made housing affordable in Arizona once more. This was not of course the way to accomplish that, but it does indicate one of the benefits of suburban development in contrast with a tight greenbelt.

The report also offers one other important insight. Plenty of people cannot qualify for purchase or do not want to stay put. Interestingly, the rental market does not reflect these disparities: rents in Portland and Phoenix remain not just comparable but almost identical, which makes little sense given the ratios for homes prices. This seems to indicate a market that is not adjusting and that requires more research.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Academic Publishing

* The following is a longer version of an editorial that is due to appear in the journal Political Geography later in the year.

First, a little background. In May, 2011, The Economist carried an article, somewhat ambiguously titled ‘of goats and headaches’ (the title remains obscure and it’s not worth explaining: it and related comments can be retrieved at The gist of the piece was that some publishers—Elsevier and Springer were named—are doing remarkably well despite the recession and seem to be weathering the digital information revolution more adeptly than their counterparts, notably in the music industry. The commentator pointed out that this occurs despite some serious problems: many universities cannot afford to purchase the expensive package deals that publishers provide for full access to their thousands of titles (the buffet system), nor do they like the alternative, which is to pay download prices for individual articles (the à la carte option). As the unnamed commentator goes on to point out, this is all a little absurd as academics voluntarily give the publishers the copyright to their work but then have to pay later to use the rest of the academic commons.
            This issue clearly resonates with many who resent paying to use digital information. George Monbiot goes further by comparing Elsevier, Springer and Wiley to ‘feudal landlords’ and decrying them as ‘monopoly racketeers’ for charging $30-50 dollars for published items [see]. He concludes by stating that ‘Let’s throw off these parasitic overlords and liberate the research which belongs to us’.
            Like anyone associated with a large organization, I have intermittently grappled with the issue of how my standards diverge from those of my university or my publisher. I have been an editor for Elsevier since 1995, when I took over Cities: the international journal of urban policy and planning and with which I remain connected; I am also developing a new journal, again for Elsevier, titled Current Research on Cities. Prior to that, I was also Review Editor for Political Geography Quarterly—now an Elsevier imprint but at the time published by Robert Maxwell, whom Monbiot describes as ‘one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people’.
Over this long run, then, I have heard the company line at various workshops and observed the evolution of Elsevier’s rhetoric. Twenty years ago, I wrote a somewhat acerbic editorial roundly condemning academic publishing and suggesting that all we needed to throw off our shackles was a photocopier (Kirby, 1992).  This current posting is a rather different interpretation of ‘corporate publishing’.  
What is the value added?
It is a common criticism of publishers like Elsevier that they are rapacious and that they do not deserve the largesse that they extract from the transfer of knowledge. Twenty years ago, this seemed to me to be about setting a price point, but today there is a more complex context in which digital information resides. Basically, the erosion of the frictions of distance increases the expectation that information will be free: if you don’t have to deliver the newspaper, why should I pay to see the on-line version?; if I’m not getting the entire CD, why should I pay to download a few tracks?, and so forth. The music industry tried to throttle what we might call ‘open access’, and nearly went out of business; now, the structure of music supply has changed dramatically, and many musicians expect to survive on touring and selling ‘merch’ rather than on their royalties, as that is where the value added most clearly resides for the consumer.
Now, the same logic applied to academic 01 data, as opposed to musical 01 data, would imply the following business model. We create, we make the information available on our Facebook page, and we make our money on the lecture circuit, where we might make a little extra by signing copies of our papers or selling T shirts. And indeed, there are those at the top who do command ridiculous fees for their appearances, but, of course, most of us are not in that kind of demand and so we have our day jobs; aspiring musicians work as graphic designers, we teach. But the basic issue is that we can afford to give away our information because we do not expect to live on that revenue stream. [1]
This is the logic that fuels the very cross in the blogosphere. Here I think is a representative offering, from a mathematician—“It is a truth universally acknowledged that journals fail to add significant value in a way that justifies their high prices (we write, typeset, referee, edit, and they do basically nothing except charge an arm and a leg for it” ( Just to make the point absolutely clear, the author goes on to suggest that commercial publishers actually remove value by wasting authors’ time requiring weird formats, professional quality diagrams and so on. Monbiot concurs, suggesting that long periods ‘in press’ actually delays the dissemination of knowledge.
Twenty years ago I would probably have agreed with this assessment, but no longer. Mathematicians are representative of a previous scientific era, and by that I mean pre-Enlightenment rather than pre-digital. Their notion of science communication is essentially to pass around proofs and to vote upon their elegance. In such a medieval guild (Johnston also uses the metaphor of the village), there is little to be gained from the contemporary publisher; indeed, this type of closed community barely benefits from the printing press (Johnston, 2005).  For them, the vast expense of digitizing the collective wisdom lodged within literally tens of millions of journal articles, borne by publishers over the past decade, amounts to nothing; the same is probably true of electronic submission systems.
The value that is added for the rest of us by the contemporary publisher lies in an entirely different understanding of the scholarly article, the academic journal and information transfer. [2] In this model, the raw material is the scholarly journal article. In a genuflection to the past, these are notionally assembled into issues of the relevant journal, but for the most part no-one sees the print copy, as most readers now use digital downloads. Elsevier handled its first 1 billion downloads between 1999-2006, and numbers continue to increase dramatically.
In a fairly traditional version of scientific relations, the worth of a paper is assessed in terms of the citations that it garners (regardless of their positive or negative tenor).  Since the political attacks on the public sector that began approximately thirty years ago, these citations have become commodified, and are aggregated as a measure of the worth of the author/researcher (and, by extension, of the academic system as whole). Metrics such as the h-score are now routinely employed to provide a measure against which individuals can be assessed against their peers in a discipline, department, laboratory or institute. [3] The value of the citations themselves can be assessed by addressing the prestige of the journals within which the researcher is published, and there are formulas routinely employed to compare journals (e.g. the Impact Factor, measured over one or five years).
These metrics are, to repeat, ways in which to commodify the journal and the individual researcher, and by extension, the discipline itself. Publishers have played a significant role here, especially in terms of organizing the measurement of citations, although this is not a role that they necessarily created for themselves: h-scores, for example, were developed by scientists who clearly still believe in striving for total objectivity in measurement and who have consequently created burdens for all of us in the process (Hirsch, 2005).    
If these metrics were all that we need from publishers, then it would be relatively easy to find other ways to measure productivity [and the transformation of the global university system, with dramatic changes to the role of the researcher/teacher, demand just that]. However, the real value of the journal article—and by extension, the journal article publisher—lies elsewhere. To understand this, we move beyond citations to clickstreams. In this new data universe, users behave as do all users of the internet, that is, they move from site to site as something catches their attention. To do this efficiently requires a platform such as Web of Science (Thomson Reuters) or SciVerse Scopus (Elsevier). There, the user searches by keyword and finds a matching paper; however, that result then points the user towards other matches, in closely linked journals or in entirely different disciplines. Before going further, it is worth reminding ourselves just how vast the scholarly publication landscape actually is: Scopus, for example, is a large bibliographic database, providing search access to over 18,000 journals—but even this is only a small fraction of the 200,000 journals produced globally (Kähler, 2010). As an additional indicator of the vastness of this repository, there are now over 35 million papers and reviews in existence.
Here lies both the challenge, and the unfolding potential, of digital information. While it is merely nice to be offered new music or a new book by Amazon based upon our preferences, it is truly revolutionary to be able to browse efficiently through thousands of journals and millions of articles to find potentially relevant information. Furthermore, the ways in which this browsing happens can, in turn, reveal interesting information on the structures of knowledge. Figure 1, for instance, is an analysis of over one billion clicks in 2006-7, aggregated to reflect the journals visited. [4]

Figure 1: The linkages between disciplines, based upon clickstream data, from Bollen et al. 2009 [see note 4].

What this reveals is interesting as guide to current research behavior and to future funding needs. The authors of the study provide some insights:
“The connections between the journals in the map's rim cross multiple domains. For example, alternative energy (rim, 3PM) connects to pharmaceutical research and chemical engineering, which itself further connects to toxicology studies and biotechnology. Brain research (rim, 6PM) is connected to genetics, biology, animal behavior, and social and personality psychology. Human geography studies connect to geography, plant genetics, and finally agriculture. A number of clusters are well-connected to both the natural science and social science clusters. For example, ecology and biodiversity (5PM) connects the domains of biology (rim, 5PM) and architecture and design (hub, 5PM). Production and manufacturing (12PM) bridge the domains of physics and engineering (rim, 2PM) and economics (hub, 11PM)” Bollen et al. 2009, p.6).

While it not really central to my argument, geographers may be interested to note the bridging role performed by human geography, while noting that the key social science journals that do transcend disciplines are the American Economic Review, American Historical Review, American Anthropologist and Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.  For the record, mathematics journals tend to be connected only to other math journals.
The potential of bibliometrics
The emerging fields of bibliometrics, webometrics, informetrics and scientometrics are part of an empirical effort to rethink how we understand academic knowledge, using the power of current computer systems to trace relations within the vast data collections (e.g. Frenken, 2009). This augments and, in some ways, displaces more traditional ways to think about academic knowledge, which have a rich deductive foundation (Broughton, 2006). While we may recoil from inductive approaches, which can seem like crude trawling exercises, there is enormous potential here to transcend the limits to knowledge acquisition that have arisen during the past 150 years. When Darwin wrote, it was not impossible to strive to know something about everything—an aspiration that has since become impossible to even contemplate. Now the successful academic is one who knows everything about something, however narrow and arcane that something might appear to the outsider. With this level of specialization come barriers that anyone who attempts to transcend a specialized field knows only too well, with the result that subfields tend become ever smaller and more entrenched.
In this environment, some researchers, who do need to transcend these limitations, require help: a health professional, for instance, may need to understand “the neighborhood” in order to design a research project on suburban health. This is where the publishers come in, offering different types of research support. To be sure, some of these are probably not relevant to social scientists. Streaming video of clinical procedures pushed to the smart phone is valuable to a nursing professional but not to us. However, being able to move in an efficient manner from article to citation to article is a valuable resource. We can also go a step further, creating meta-journals that provide the same information in a more structured manner. The new journal Current Research on Cities is, for instance, designed to provide summaries of information about urban studies and urban areas for those working in the field, but also those whose home base may be in geology or public health and who would not think of themselves as urban researchers, but whose work is taking them in exactly that direction (see
Let me summarize my argument in two ways. First, publishing is no longer about passing journal articles back and forth within a small group of colleagues; and in consequence, publishers do more than simply provide legitimacy for the journals they produce in order to extract value from them.
If the transfer of information were indeed a simple business, then it would be equally simple to get rid of publishers entirely. Open access journals with peer review do of course exist—Bollen’s work [cited above] is such an example—but it is interesting that to find the paper, the user has to work through Google Scholar.  In this example, the production of the research is supported by the taxpayer who funds the Los Alamos Laboratory (where the computing was undertaken), and the paper is found by using Google, which is supported by advertising. The authors also had to pay to have the paper published. There is really nothing to stop open access other than the (opportunity) costs involved for the author—and these may be hefty. So long as we stay with a Royal Society model of knowledge, in which the Transactions constitutes a subscription newsletter, by and for a restricted membership, this is acceptable—but it is also noteworthy how few academic researcher/authors have in fact migrated to open access. [5]
            This brings us on to the bigger picture of contemporary publishing. Its contribution lies in its ability to provide access to a literal world of information (that cannot be obtained via simpler search procedures such as Google Scholar: see Jasco, 2005). In this, the academic enterprise is beginning to mirror other commercial ventures that provide a means to manage vast amounts of data about daily life.  What is unusual is the way that this is funded: users do not pay to search for products on Amazon .com or in the way that libraries do. Perhaps there is no philosophical problem in allowing advertising to subsidize scholarly publishing, although I would point to two practical issues. First, there is the ethical question: in many areas of science, peer review is not about supporting one’s chums, it is about endorsing patentable products, some of which are potentially lethal drugs. The dangers of allowing too much cash to pass through publisher pockets are pretty clear (and that is true of the suggestion that we pay reviewers, also). Second, have a look at your G-mail account, especially the advertisements that hover above and alongside the messages and which subsidize the service. Now start typing a message that contains words such as HOA—the ads will change to give you lists of HOA lawyers in your area. That is fine, and sometimes helpful: but what if you are sending a message dealing with research in which the keyword now becomes ‘pedophilia’ or ‘terrorism’? Who knows what kind of outcome this might trigger—instead of advertisements, it is quite possible that some form of surveillance might be triggered [and I do not intend to test my theory]. Cautious scholars would be extremely circumspect about the potential for this kind of intrusion into their research activities, and while this is an extreme example, it does point to the limitations of depending upon advertising to support some of the costs of publication.
            Do publishers deserve to make big profits—and what constitutes ‘big’?  That is not for me to say: the reader is once more directed to what the publishers themselves say on their own behalf (see note 2). I argue only that they are overseeing a much bigger enterprise than most users understand, and without their innovations, things that we can do today—and might do tomorrow—would  be little more than wishlists.

1. I am obviously simplifying the situation here. Most musicians support themselves: most academic researchers are supported, directly or indirectly, by the tax payer, with the result that corporations are in turn being indirectly subsidized.
2. Publishers themselves are keenly aware of the value added debate: see for instance .
3. The h-index assumes that a scholar with ten publications should be cited on ten occasions, and notionally provides a yardstick against which to measure reputation: formally it is expressed as ‘a scientist has index h if h of his/her Np papers have at least h citations each, and the other (Np − h) papers have no more than h citations each (Hirsch, 2005, see also Kähler, 2010).
4. This is a dataset of approximately 1 billion user actions logged in 2006-7 by Web of Science, Scopus, JSTOR, Ingenta, the University of Texas and California State University. Figure 1 covers March 1st 2006 to February 1st 2007, a total of 346,312,045 user actions relating to 97,532 serial publications, mostly but not exclusively scholarly journals. The illustration is a manipulated version of the original which is used, without requiring explicit permission, from an open access site; the complexities of copyright are an issue that I do not have enough space here to discuss.
5. The Open Access journal in question charges authors $1350 to publish papers that are accepted after review; Elsevier offers authors an OA option (in which the latter maintain copyright) for $3000. In passing, it would be interesting to measure the delay in publishing in peer-reviewed OA journals: as the biggest delay in publication is always the problem of completing serious review, I doubt that the production times, complained about by Monbiot, are any shorter.
Bollen J, Van de Sompel H, Hagberg A, Bettencourt L, Chute R, Rodriguez M.A., Balakireva L. (2009) Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4803. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004803.
Broughton, V. 2006 Essential Thesaurus Construction, London, Facet.
Frenken, K. Hardeman, S. and Hoekman, J. (2009) Spatial scientometrics: Towards a cumulative research program Journal of Informetrics 3 222-32.
Hirsch, J. E. (2005) An index to quantify an individual’s scientific research output Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (46) 16569–16572.
Jasco, P. (2005) As we may search – Comparison of major features of the Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar citation-based and citation-enhanced databases Current Science, 89(9) 1537-47.
Johnston, R.J (2005) Editorial Environment and Planning A 37 2-8.
Kähler, O (2010) Combining peer review and metrics to assess journals for inclusion in Scopus Learned Publishing, 23:336–346 doi:10.1087/20100411.
Kirby A. (1992) Editorial comment: Publishing deca(ye)de Political Geography Quarterly 11(3) 235-7.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Whistling Dixie while Rome floods

The recent visit of Hurricane Irene underscores—yet again—certain self-evident truths concerning the uneasy relations between cities and nature. As the dead are buried and the insurance estimates tallied, the usual stupid questions are asked—was there an over-reaction, was ‘Wolf’ cried too early, should governments even be ordering evacuations?... and so on and so forth.
Let’s be clear about certain things that seem, strangely, to be mysterious to many in the US. First, nature is like a big black bear. It can be cute but it can also kill you, even if it has a cuddly name like Irene and Katrina. Second, smart people understand the risks that they face. Third, smart people adapt to those risks. Fourth, it is quite possible for small community groups to adapt to their natural surroundings but for that to happen, they would have to understand the complexities both of nature and science.
Let’s tackle these in sequence. Just because tens of thousands of people die annually in traffic accidents or handgun incidents is hardly a reason to downplay the small number of deaths that occur from earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. After all, if Americans had smaller vehicles, better instruction and stricter rules about blabbing on cell phones, then fatalities on the roads would decrease, and if there were no handguns, then accidental deaths and suicides might decrease too. But not everything is about the body count. The impacts of natural events may usually be low in human terms but are excessively high in financial costs: the insurance industry reckons the annual impact to be in the region of $35 billion in the US alone, with spikes in specific years. A recent report from CERES presents the diagram (below).
The report is valuable because it emphasizes that while a good deal of attention is (rightly) placed on coastal real estate, that is hardly the end of the story. While nor-very-smart consumers and unscrupulous real estate professionals—assisted by lackadaisical planners and validated by FEMA—have been actively building big homes in marginal locations (e.g. on coastal islands), there is also plenty of ill-advised building on inland flood plains and fault zones.  

The potentially catastrophic impacts of natural disasters should not be underestimated; the Japanese have suffered two enormously destructive earthquakes in recent years that have had serious impacts when measured in the context of the national GDP, as this graphic from the Economist indicates. Note too the small role that insurance has played in the aftermath of many of these events, compounding the financial impact.

The message to be taken from Irene (and a score of other events in recent years) is that savvy individuals learn what risks they face in the locations they inhabit. Smart communities adapt to these risks and to the risks that they will face in a shifting future with more extreme weather events. And most crucially, those who decry the roles of government and of science will offer an alternative to a future of more extreme and more expensive natural catastrophes: prayer, anyone?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is there a way to compare these sociograms?

I am much taken with the potential of social media to support the creative enterprise through commentary, supportive or not. So, in that spirit, I am hoping for comments on how my co-author and I might analyze the diagrams reproduced below.
A word or two of background. These are sociograms, a fairly venerable way to display relations between individuals, or indeed any entities, such as cities or corporations. They can take many forms, as the literature indicates.

In our work, Sonya Glavac and I examined neighboring behaviors in seven neighborhoods in Glendale, Arizona, using measures of behavior found in the urban and social work literature. The goal was to see if residents living in Home Owner Associations behaved differently than residents living in traditional (organic) neighborhoods. We found some differences in how residents viewed their neighborhoods but few of these turned out to be statistically significant.

We also asked residents to mark on maps the neighbors with whom they interacted, lending things and so forth. We counted ties and whether reciprocal relations exist (i.e. neighbor A interacts with neighbor B, but does B interact with A with the same strength?). We created the following sociograms from the data that we collected.

Sociogram of neighboring behaviors in an HOA

Sociogram of neighboring links in a non/HOA neighborhood

We can see that although there are similar numbers of interactions, these take different forms: the HOA shows more concentration on certain individuals while the second neighborhood shows more randomness. The question is: is there a way to test these interpretations?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stress and the City

Medical researchers in Germany indicate that MRI scans of the brain show that city dwellers display different manifestations of stress than do those living in rural areas (see Figure 1 for citation information).

This seems plausible, given that dense urban areas possess numerous sources of stress, some environmental (noise for instance) and some social (the threat of or even reality of elevated crime levels in some neighborhoods, for example). It is also provocative information, given the efforts that are made by some in the design community to connect poor health outcomes with low-densities (in suburban areas) rather than high-density central cities.
Another part of Nature’s coverage of paper also caught my attention: editorial writer Alison Abbott suggested that the research “may also open the way for greater coopera­tion between neuroscientists and social scien­tists. ‘There has been a long history of mutual antipathy, particularly in psychiatry,’ says sociolo­gist Craig Morgan at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. ‘But this is the sort of study that can prove to both sides that they can gain from each others’ insights.’” (Nature, June 23 2010 p. 472).  The editorial continues, writing of the neurological research: “Yet he has had trouble interesting his social-science colleagues in setting up joint projects. Such lack of sympathy across the cultural divide is common, says Ernst Fehr, an econo­mist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, which studies the neurological basis of eco­nomic decisions. ‘But social problems have neurobiological effects, which, in turn, may exacerbate the social problems,’ he says. The social sciences have as much to gain from crossing disciplinary boundaries as the biological sciences, says Morgan. ‘Sociologists and epidemiologists establish associations that are plausible — like immigrants may suffer more mental illness because of social isolation — but they are validated when neuroscientists demonstrate a robust biological mechanism.’
These claims are interesting here, given that URBlog exists with the goal of providing information on cities to non-urbanists. It does though suggest some unnecessary antipathies on behalf of medical researchers. It is hardly plausible to suggest that social scientists are uninterested in mental health issues—the journal Social Science and Medicine published 18 papers in just 2010-11 on mental health in urban areas.
The problems are based in different research strategies. The following diagram (from Galea, 2005) shows some of the complexities of health outcomes. Moreover, Galea suggests that social scientists tend to work left to right (and often deductively, I’d suggest) while medical research starts (inductively) from the right hand side and tries to move left.  

 So, we have a complex real-world problem, and an almost-as-complicated problem of research design and methodology. We shall, in consequence, be focusing a good deal of attention on health issues in Current Research on Cities next year. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Urban Word Cloud

This may be the most fun that I’ve had in a while, at least involving urban studies. I am indebted to Jonathan Feinberg of Wordle Logoand Young Wu of Elsevier who did the search on papers published in 2010 in the Humanities and Social Sciences that contained key words ‘urban’, ‘cities’ or ‘city’.  This yielded over 17000 keywords, which were dumped into Wordle. Unsurprisingly, "urban" anchors the heap, but it is interesting to see what else emerges...."health" is a significant presence (with "health" "care"), along with "policy", "planning" and "development". Neither "global" nor "creative" makes its presence felt. "United States" is the most prominent regional descriptor, but "China" is emerging, as we would expect. There seems to be no mention of climate change or immigration, and transport is not as prominent as one might expect. And its still too soon to see 'foreclosure' in print...perhaps in 2012.

Friday, July 1, 2011

You mean we could just fix this?

This last week of June saw a webcast organized by the Urban Institute in Washington DC, designed to focus attention on the new publication Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government. Titled “Private community associations: boon or bane for local governance?”, the event brought together Evan McKenzie, professor of political science and law at the University of Illinois at Chicago (and the author of Beyond Privatopia) and Robert Nelson, who is a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and the author of Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government (also published by Urban Institute Press, in 2005). The discussion was nimbly moderated by Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
Although the actual title of the debate is enough to encourage torpor (and it was apparently not well attended) the issue of governance is central to the urban future. And the way in which ‘public versus private’ plays out in planning and governance will be at the core of the manner in which many cities develop economically and how they deal with the challenges of climate change adaptation in the next fifty years (a point I’ll return to below).
As I have argued at length elsewhere, Home Owner Associations (HOAs) get a bad rap, both in the popular press and within the academy. Evan McKenzie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the academic critics and his commentary can be traced back to 1994, before the issue of privatization was on most people’s radar. Still, his critique is what one would expect from an individual who has a self-identified interest in what he describes as the “gross imbalance” of power between HOAs and their members (p. xii of Beyond Privatopia). In his presentation, he argued against HOAs on the grounds that residents lack choice, do not know what they are signing when they enter into the home owner contract, and that many HOAs are in a financial hole. He also argued that the principles of common interest developments (CIDs) were developed in the past by, and for, richer and, by implication, smarter people than those who now find themselves in HOAs; and that CIDs are a way for developers to increase residential densities. The first of these suggestions seems more than a little condescending; the second is unusual insofar as most critics of suburban housing regimes are usually keen to increase residential densities by any means possible.
Robert Nelson took a different approach, on which more in a moment. His work (exemplified by his 2005 book) is an extremely thoughtful dissection of the failures of the municipality and the need to move toward more responsive polities—such as the neighborhood association. As he points out, for example, illegal immigrants and those with second homes have no voting rights in places where they live and pay property taxes, but they do have a say in their neighborhood. His optimism for the progressive possibilities of neighborhood associations is truly innovative.
Nelson also said one thing that almost caused me to fall from my chair during his presentation—“you make improvements, when there are problems”. In other words, if HOAs are prone to fiscal challenges, or if residents do not understand their obligations, then these are fixable. They don’t negate the entire system.
This is a breathtaking observation because it flies in the face of most academic thinking, (and increasingly, much popular thought). In short, if a phenomenon—gated communities, say—can be assailed on various counts, then an ironclad case has been made against all gated communities for all time, and they can be added to the list of the world’s evils (and in that line of idiotic argument, gated communities have actually been compared in print to concentration camps). So it is an astonishing sideways leap to hear the alternative: if things are not working, we don’t get rid of everything, we don’t legislate something out of existence—we just fix things.
            As I observed above, this is important because it goes to the heart of how we approach the urban future. For at least a decade, for instance, we have been told that climate change must be tackled via mitigation strategies; authors who have advocated for adaptation strategies have been roundly criticized for their Quisling attitudes. Yet this is another example of absolutist thinking: if carbon production is bad, then it must be stopped—even if that does nothing to prepare our cities for the impacts of climate change already being felt. Robert Nelson provides us with the alternative: when there are problems, find ways to fix them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The State of Asian Cities 2010/11

I have been belatedly reading through the relatively new UN Habitat report titled The State of Asian Cities 2010/11. This is an excellent volume of 280 pages, beautifully produced, but available for free download. It is densely packed with ideas and information, and it will take a while for users to digest its contents, but even that task is aided by a thoughtful introduction (written by Bharat Dahiya) and several summaries.
The report is divided into five subsequent sections. The first provides an overview of ‘Urbanizing Asia’ and the wide disparities within the region. The second examines the ‘Economic Role of Asian Cities’, which is inextricably linked to the third discussion, namely the distribution of ‘Poverty and Inequality in Asian Cities’. The fourth section deals with ‘The Urban Environment and Climate Change’ while the last chapter covers ‘Urban Governance, Management and Finance in Asia’.
It is impossible to do justice to such a large report and one cannot do better than to repeat some of the key points and statistics produced by the researchers and editors, as follows:

There are some provocative statements here, and if this report needed any justification, it is to be found in bullet point #3.
There is in fact no question that the report is timely in every sense. Indeed, a caption to one photo in the management section reads “Tokyo, Japan. Urban management remains a day-to-day challenge even in well-managed cities”—an observation that might have seemed rather unexceptional at the beginning of the year, but which has, of course, taken on greater significance since the events of March 11 2011, which remind us that even properous cities can be extremely vulnerable once interlocking infrastructures begin to collapse.
As an academic enjoying the luxury of discussion (as opposed to the obligations of policy development or governance), there are some points in the report where I disagreed with positions that are presented as broad realities, even though that sits uneasily with the heterogeneity of ‘urban Asia’ that is so exhaustively presented at the outset of the report. To take a single example, the discussions that appear in the second section regarding urban density and the costs of ‘sprawl’ seem contradictory to me. It is claimed that “as a market response to land demand, high density results in more efficient use of space. It acts as a cure for urban sprawl as it makes cities more compact and hence more efficient from the perspective of infrastructure investment” (p 71). This is of course a received wisdom in the West (discussed for instance by Edward Glaeser in his recent book).  But dense cities are hard to maintain in the face of rapid population in-migration, as vertical cities demand high-quality construction (or apartments collapse, as happens spectacularly in Indian cities on a regular basis). High rents keep those with limited skills out of the housing market and thus guarantee the ‘enclaves of the poor’ about which the report rightly complains (p. 23). And it is open to empirical analysis that urban infrastructure is cheaper than ex-urban infrastructure: central cities with their high-rise buildings, busy streets and utility lines are a nightmare to maintain and retrofit, whereas lower-density development can be significantly cheaper, insofar as water and other connections are easy to make and maintain, and not all roads have to be paved.
This seems to me one of the benefits of this kind of report, namely that it can provide a context both for agreement and debate. It is clear that a vast amount of thought has gone into every aspect of this document and the excellence of The State of Asian Cities 2010/11 is evident throughout. The report represents a benchmark against which we could all measure our urban research.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do we need to hate cities to be urbanists?

It is not news in most fields when one of its proponents writes a book celebrating the core values of the discipline. There is though something almost shocking about a volume titled Triumph of the City.  That may have more than a little to do with the involuntary image of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will that the cover must invoke (not least as both contrive to drop the definite article from their respective titles). And it is not impossible that the drama is intentional, as Edward Glaeser’s recent volume is clearly designed to be both a celebration and a provocation: its subtitle reads “how our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier”, none of which are typically associated with urban life.
Is it curious that many who devote themselves to writing about cities don’t actually think much of them? Jane Jacobs wrote of their death, Lewis Mumford wrote about ‘Necropolis’, Mike Davis wrote of Dead Cities, and their pessimism is hardly unusual. It began with the Romantics and has permeated popular culture for so long that it is almost taken-for-granted. The most recent addition to the video game pantheon is L.A. Noire, which is set in the Los Angeles of the Philip Marlowe era (and Chandler was pretty hostile to ‘Bay City’ himself). From the creators of Grand Theft Auto, this dark vision simply broadens the dystopic virtual vision of urban life that is central to many dark and violent games, movies and television shows.
So to celebrate cities as “our greatest invention” is a genuine departure. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, synthesizes two decades of his own writings and those of his contemporaries, concluding with the statement that “our culture, our prosperity and our freedom are ultimately gifts of people living, working and thinking together—the ultimate triumph of the city”.  
Frankly, it should not be big news that cities have something going for them; rural populations are continually departing poverty and places with minimal services for towns and cities, even though they face inevitable hardships when they arrive there. And yet the anti-urban critique is so pervasive that it seems almost insurrectionary to write about the affordability of the suburbs, the provision of municipal services and the complexity of urban ecologies.
Not everything in this book is quite right. It follows too far in the literal footsteps of Jane Jacobs, betraying its origins in New York at the expense of all other places on the planet; if the book were filmed, Woody Allen would be the obvious choice for director. Glaeser writes with a shudder about his own suburban experiences in Massachusetts, with asides that could have come from the 1950s: “my wife and I were pretty sure we wanted to live someplace where we could eat out anonymously”. Unsurprisingly for an Ivy League academic, his comments about Houston and its counterparts lack any hint of real experience with such places. It makes little sense to suggest for example that Houston only exists because other labor markets are too restrictive and so investment goes where it can. It is interesting that it has just been deemed the most innovative city in the US by the magazine Fast Company (published in New York).
So, there’s much to disagree with in Edward Glaeser’s book, but not with his basic premise. I’ll be using it in the classroom as it displays what any course about cities—or any urban journal, for that matter—must, namely that urbanization is a powerful force about which we must be passionate.     

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Current Research on Cities

In the first posting to the URBlog, which was only coincidentally dated April Fool’s day, I mentioned a new publishing venture titled Current Research on Cities. One of the goals of this forum is to attract readers to CRoC, which will appear first in early 2012 as a supplement to the Elsevier journal CITIES.

CRoC is designed to be the first meta-journal in the field of urban studies. In the same way that meta-analysis draws on existing research to synthesize what is known on a topic, a meta-journal pulls together what we know about a field and keep researchers up to date. These kinds of publications are not entirely new. In some of the life and physical sciences, the output of material is so vast that it would be a full time job just to keep track of what is being published. The urgency might seem overdrawn, but much science is big business, especially where pharmaceuticals are involved.

Urban studies may not be the kind of discipline in which immediacy is paramount but it is a vast field. At one end, it includes physical sciences such as geology, meteorology and climatology, and ecology.  It tends to be centered upon the social and behavioral sciences, where subfields such as urban economics and urban politics are quite visible, but many disciplines have an urban focus, including law and psychology. There is also all the research and publication that can be subsumed under urban policy, which ranges from innovative city governments passing ordnances dealing with climate change through to national governments throughout the world (many of which have sustainable city initiatives) and then the global entities such as the UN and the World Bank that have taken leadership roles in focusing on urban affairs. This spectrum then continues towards the work of the humanities, which too contains a vast amount of material, some academic (including philosophical discussions of the city and historic analysis of urban development) and some relating explicitly to the urban experience, manifested in written form, video and music.

No individual could be in control of more than a fraction of this material. However, a network of Associate Editors and I will be able to find the very best people to summarize what is happening in all of these arenas and to maintain a record of what is being published. Our goal is that this meta-journal will not merely summarize the field for its members but will also supply material for researchers looking to find current thinking on urban concepts such as neighborhoods as they design their own research, or techniques such as GIS or remote sensing. 

CRoC is a work under construction and the first papers are being this is an excellent time for readers to comment on what they would like to see in the journal!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Welcome to URBlog!

Welcome to the URBAN blog. It's designed for researchers, teachers and other professionals, from all backgrounds, who are interested in any aspect of cities in any part of the world. That's obviously a broad remit but that's the purpose of this effort—namely to start to provide usable information across the urban spectrum.

It’s a cliché that this is the “urban century”, as rural out-migration accelerates in China, India and Africa. But as more and more people become city residents, we actually know less and less about the complexity of their experiences.  There are some basic commonalities, for sure: the challenges of shelter, of employment, of mobility. But the ways these get resolved from place is place is infinitely complex. The alien visitor, carelessly crash-landing in Phoenix, Amsterdam, Singapore or Mumbai would see some basic similarities but many stark contrasts.

This blog is dedicated to the messiness of our urban world and to the basic proposition that there is no such thing as a model city. Of course, there are plenty of commentators who believe strongly that they know best—how dense a city should be, what kinds of transportation infrastructure it should possess, even how close its homes should be and to what design elements they should conform. But there is no evidence that such normative ideas make much sense. Not only are there always competing norms, but of course strongly-held right answers are constantly circling out of fashion; anyone looking for an excellent account of this in the US context should turn to Witold Rybczynski’s recent volume Makeshift Metropolis, whose title is of course a reproach to all those with rigid notions.

A single blog cannot do much to capture the complexities of the urban world and fortunately this does not exist in isolation. I am also working on a new journal titled Current Research on Cities which will go into production in 2012. Look for more on that in the next post.