The price of “somewhere”: Gentrification and Equality

The title, as long time readers have already figured out, plays on my favorite geography book – James H. Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape.The book, written in the mid-/late-1990s, is an excellent perspective on the history of the United States’ built landscape, specifically the typical American suburb (of which Z Geography is intimately familiar). The book reads as a eulogy for the “classic” American small-towns of the northeast. The “Main Street” that modern politicians are so fond of recalling. These towns and villages were small, reasonably compact, intimate, and green. In other words, the complete antithesis of the modern suburb.

In this post, we’ll discuss how these “Nowheres” are in transition to becoming “Somewheres” in both cities and suburbs. In highlighting the disparate, but legitimate, interests associated with development as well as its pitfalls, I’m hoping to draw your attention to the importance of these political choices. Beyond politics, there is also room for decency.

As any urban resident will tell you, things are changing. White Americans are returning, following the well-discussed “White Flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, when the racial group left cities for safer, cleaner, newer suburbs. The process of returning and the development associated with it has been coined gentrification. Gentrification involves an increase in home values and better delivery of public goods (e.g. education, transportation, security) – city managers like the increased tax revenue. Young, white families like being in a city while enjoying more effective utilities. Of course, there are already residents living in these cities – black home owners and renters, with decidedly less income, who are eventually “encouraged” out by developers or high property values.

These disparate outcomes increased development while original residents are pushed out have been discussed in some media. Recently, the Washington Post described how large, predominantly black, churches in Washington, DC are attempting to prevent the creation of bike lanes on the streets near the church. As the Post observes:

  • “the packed meeting…highlighted a tension in the rapidly changing District [of Columbia] between longtime, black residents and new, largely white residents.”
  • “These conflicts stem from the change in D.C.’s neighborhoods. Many of D.C.’s churches were built at a time when their neighborhoods, such as Shaw, weren’t as teeming with condos and restaurants,  and parking wasn’t as big of an issue. Additionally, many longtime churchgoers have left the city for the suburbs and now commute to their old churches by car.”

The issue relates to a proposal to establish bike lanes on streets near the church, thus removing parking spaces. While not summarized as such the “conflict” (because that is what it is) is between two distinct social groups (blacks, whites) on how best to use (in this case transportation) a finite, terrestrial resource (land). Again the Post:

  • “This ain’t London, this ain’t Europe. The United States is built on the automobile and we need to respect that,” said Michael Green, a deacon at New Bethel Baptist Church.
  • “Washington Area Bicycle Association, a group that advocates for cycling in the city, argues that bike lanes wouldn’t prevent anyone from going to church.  There are other modes of transportation available to churchgoers, and bike lanes are necessary for the safety of the city’s increasing number of cyclists.”

The conflict, obviously, is ultimately a political question and as the Advisory Neighborhood Commission member notes in the article not everyone is going to be happy with the outcome. The Washington Post article presents both sides of the dispute as legitimate stakeholders with competing interests. Often, it is too easy to characterize (or spin, if you like) these conflicts into easily identifiable “right” and “wrong” positions under a completely different narrative, one for each stakeholder.

Gentrification is not only happening in America’s cities, it is also happening in some of the suburbs as well. Considering that many of suburbs are still more affluent (and house predominantly whites) than the cities they surround, what I’m really referring to is the development or transformation of these communities.

Politico describes the ongoing transformation in a suburb outside Chicago, Evanston, Illinois, which trying to “kill the car” as the title notes. The article is a 5-page look at a new-old concept: transit-oriented development (TOD). New because, Americans (sometime after Europeans) “rediscovered” it. Old because we employed this concept with railroads and streetcars. Evanston’s planning (since 1986) involves mixed-use development (i.e. residential and commercial) close to one another near a transit node (hence transit-oriented development). The theory is to promote walkability within insulated communities – walk from your apartment to the grocery store, bakery, or school. But, if your job is in Chicago, then there is a light rail just down the street. The net effect, of course, is to make cars useless.

Unfortunately, Politico gives decidedly short thrift to the problems of development and gentrification (you have to dig to page 5). According to the article, critics of TOD refer to it as “transit oriented displacement.” There is only a general mention of “affordable housing” as a potential explanation to how TOD, with its rising property values and prices, generates “diverse neighborhoods—diverse in population, retail, entertainment and housing”.

At the moment, according to the 2010 Census, Evanston was more racially and ethnically diverse compared to the rest of Illinois (66% White, 72% White respectively). However, the city is also markedly more affluent based on average income and with median home values of over $350,000 compared to $182,000. There is already a bar to live in this transforming suburb where a car is not as necessary. The unintended consequence, without guaranteed affordable housing, is to permit an elite core of residents the luxury of short commutes, walkability, and liveability, while a much larger group of workers must commute in – probably with cars – because they can’t afford it.

There are no easy solutions to these political problems. How do we as a local electorate balance the desires of newcomers with the desires of long-time residents? Many would argue that these questions should be decided at the ballot box – but that is also a tyranny of the majority. A time may not be far off when your majority becomes a minority – what then will we have built? What precedent would you have set?

Natural Resources: Hidden Curse or Buried Treasure?

Z Geography is out of town this weekend.

A USA Today article (published on 16 January 2014) gushes (no pun intended!) over the continuing development of the Eagle Ford Shale in southern Texas. The article aptly discusses the benefits and problems associated with major natural resource discoveries. Besides the variety of ways physical geography influences natural resources (accessibility, availability, to name a few) human geography also influences (and is influenced by) natural resources.

Over the short term, the article highlights the sudden influx of money into an otherwise struggling, predominantly rural belt in the state of Texas. In an accompanying article, USA Today reports that one county sitting atop the shale had to give $300,000 back to the state last year (under Texas law, more affluent districts return “a percentage” of their revenue in order to fund poorer ones). This year this particular district is projected to return $28 million. This money, derived from a variety of links with the shale’s oil (land royalties, spiking land prices, greater sales), facilitates the district’s acquisition of technology to enrich public school education. In addition, the funds have also allowed for upkeep and maintenance on existing facilities. To illustrate this boom, according to the article 70% of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Through these oil-generated funds, all 1,300 students in the district of access to new iPads, new school buses, and free school supplies.

Of course, there also a number of short term (and long term) problems associated with this boom. There are the deleterious effects of being located so close to production sites with some residents reporting nose bleeds and head aches, in addition to the terrible smell (described as rotten eggs) as trapped natural gases are burned (flaring). The city of San Antonio has recorded higher-than-normal ozone levels since the drill began, according to the article. In addition to negative health effects, these gases will also contribute to a changing climate. In addition to negative health and environmental effects, there have been other second-order effects. Prostitution and traffic have both increased as “man-camps” of oil workers are established throughout the region. This unforeseen geographic clustering is taxing for small, local police services. The massive (though ultimately temporary) increase in population is also straining regional water supplies and raising concerns of potential contamination of groundwater supplies.

A shale skeptic, quoted in the article, discusses another long term pit fall – the end of the oil. He estimates that, at current extraction rates (which are likely to rise), the Eagle Ford Shale has “five to 10 years” of production. These predictions (as dedicated followers of the “peak oil” debate will know) should be taken with a large grain of salt (or sand). As technology, and prices, change it is impossible to predict (especially with great accuracy) when the end will occur. As the article notes, the technology being employed in shale exploitation has been used for natural gas extraction. The difference came with crude oil reaching $100 a barrel and advances in technology. In short, it became profitable. Despite this a geographically-wider reading of oil economies is useful.

The United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai, provides one method of preparing for time when oil extraction becomes unprofitable. Dubai has been investing much of it’s profits from oil into becoming a financial hub of the Middle East, in addition to catering to high price tourism. These activities ensure a diversification of the local economy that should endure once physical extraction of natural resources end.

The local and state governments also have a positive role to play, and should. Nigeria is enduring a decades-long insurgency in the Nile Delta where locals accuse the central government of failing to redistribute oil revenues fairly. Then there is the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo where extensive natural resource endowment, and extraction, provides little (or no benefit) to locals thanks to a contracted state, persistent political and social violent instability, and corruption. While southern Texans unlikely to turn violent over the various negative health effects associated with production, local governments (backed by the state government) have the ability to mitigate these effects (if not wholly control them).

Natural resources can contribute to conflict (both violent and nonviolent), identifying places where these conflicts can occur is paramount to the geographer. For a transportation geographer, it may be the identification of critical intersections that are most likely to serve as bottlenecks or prone to traffic accidents. For medical geographers, it may be the delimiting of the extent to which serious health issues may arise, the proximity of people to production activities and prevailing winds. While knowing these, and other, answers are unlikely to solve underlying conflicts that can be used to more cost-effectively target solutions.

Thus, the development of the Eagle Ford Shale is “a gift” to an underdeveloped region of Texas. However, as discussed in the USA Today article and this post, the region faces serious long-term and short-term challenges. Properly managing, administering, natural resources is the corner stone of long term stability.

Exploring an Underground City: the Crystal Underground

I took my camera (alright my cell phone) and hit the underground today to explore (and later blog) about the underground city of Crystal City (Virginia), colloquially known as the “Underground”. In this post I’ll narrate my impressions of this space while providing some pictures for context. For what it is, an attempt to get pedestrians off the streets and into an area to shop and dine, it functions beautifully. But there’s only limited spaces to congregate, further, there’s just something about being underground that just doesn’t quite sit well with me yet. Granted I haven’t grabbed a book and sat down there (even my phrasing doesn’t suggest that I want to do it; “down there”), but I did grab a coffee this afternoon (and yes, it was Starbucks).

Wikipedia relates a bit of history about the place. The Underground opened in 1976, which meant that planning was underway from the 1950s or 1960s (I’m guessing), when the era of the automobile was still shiny and promising. As the wikipedia article explains “the layout of Crystal City was considered avant-garde at the time of construction, with superblocks bounded by arterial and circulating roads, and with pedestrian traffic and the businesses serving it relocated from the streets to the pedestrian tunnels.” Ironically, (and this is coming from the wikipedia article on “superblocks”), urban planner Clarence Perry (1872-1944) argued for the use of superblocks as part a “neighborhood unit” plan to provide spaces more pedestrian-friendly with spaces to congregate and socialize. The superblocks, in this conception, included areas set further back from primary arteries with interior paths and smaller cul-de-sac streets (so residents can get out and come in but people won’t try to cut through).

What Crystal City got were the superblocks, or at least the arterial streets, with the pedestrian relegated to the Underground. Its not all bad though, in a future post I’ll post photos of my explorations above-ground.

The first photo is the one I find most ironic. We’re underground yet here is a fountain painted on the wall, its an idyllic scene to be sure, but strange. I suppose they had to put something there but I wouldn’t want to draw people’s attention to the fact that they’re underground and its things like this that they’re probably missing (and they are, in fact). I still think this is a nice space, the chairs and tables provide a good place to sit, relax, and chat. Unfortunately this is one of only a few places to do so that aren’t in a restaurant or bar. That’s a problem.

the "fountain" space, 2013 (via ME!)

the “fountain” space, 2013 (via ME!)

The next photo, compared to the first, shows off the better light in that space (hence why there’s people). Its an overcast day but it still gets a bit of light. Light + Underground = People! And the chairs and tables, again, allow people to come in, take a sit down, enjoy a beverage, work a laptop, read a book, or people watch. But, again, this is the second, of three, spaces I’ve found for this sort of congregating. You can’t build a sense of community and place without having spaces for people to congregate freely, without pressure from having to buy something.

the "light" space, 2013 (via ME!)

the “light” space, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo is from that congregating area and highlights all of the places to spend your money in the Underground. In the background you can see the neon lights of a shop. Now, I understand that the city of Arlington wants tax revenue, but to scrimp on free spaces to load up on shops isn’t the way to go. Creating a space where people *want* to hang out, socialize, and chat will mean more people are going to that area and, by volume, are more likely to spend more money. On the other hand, keeping congregating spaces to a minimum and loading up on shops is bad for business (and taxes). When I walk through now I’m speeding to get home or wherever I’m going. But if I slowed down, sat down, head a coffee I would actually take some of my surroundings in and realize, “crap! I forgot I need to get milk from the local delicatessen!”

spaces to spend money, 2013 (via ME!)

spaces to spend money, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo links the two congregating spaces, I’m standing at the well-lit one (interesting that I sat at that one and not the “fountain”) looking down the “tunnel”. You can see the fountain space to the right (chairs and tables). But there’s tons of shops. I do like that it is well lit however.

the tunnel of shops, 2013 (via ME!)

the tunnel of shops, 2013 (via ME!)

This photo is of a gargantuan space, it would be perfect for congregating, chatting, having community-fun night. But it belongs to a restaurant and so, like the time this picture was taken, it sits somewhat empty. On the weekend its usually packed (live music + food) and I suppose this makes great business sense: privatize the biggest space in the Underground and encourage people to buy food or drink in order to use it.

not so open space, 2013 (via ME!)

not so open space, 2013 (via ME!)

The more I think about it, the more I think Crystal City needs an enduring social space. One that isn’t tied to a business. When I do the post on the aboveground you’ll see my hopes are pinned on the Water Park (currently under construction). While I appreciate the limited areas that are provided for people to sit around casually, relax, and be community members, I think Arlington city would do well to rethink the Underground’s plan. I think that, as a society, Americans are becoming immune to store fronts and adverts (to some degree) we’re bombarded with it. The outcome of this is that we simply keep walking (and driving), usually faster. But fast-walking pedestrians don’t earn tax dollars and it certainly doesn’t build a community.

The Automobile City’s Pedestrian Problem

“Western,” particularly American cities, have a problem and it weighs a couple of tons on average. Cars are a nuisance and a menace to society. Not only are they threat to human lives, for some reason we think we’re invincible when driving, but a threat to community life. Part of the problem lies in the vast amount of real estate that having a car requires. I’m not talking about the garage space, I’m talking about the wider road space, the multi-lane highways, the ramps, the overpasses, and the gas stations. Cars have only “been around” since World War II, thanks to mass production and interchangeable parts (among other things). Most, if not all, of our cities were created decades, centuries, or millenia before World War II. We didn’t create cities for automobiles, but we have been revising our cities since then to make room for the beasts.

As much as technical and process advantages were useful in dropping the relative price of a car so that “everyone” could own one, that “everyone” eventually did and still expects to haunts our species. I say, our species, because the “right of car ownership” has long passed to the “developing” world. Now, everywhere you go, succeeding at life can be measured by whether or not you own a car. So everywhere year, more cars hit the roads and the most expedient policy answer is to make cities and towns and places more car accessible, or at least try to maintain the same level of accessibility via car. The U.S. Census Bureau released (in 2009, via average commute times and the number of commuters subjected to these pains, while it aggregates all forms of transportation we can help but wonder how many of the longer commuters are suffering in cars in places like New York. Over 500,000 people commute for over an hour to get to work, Full disclosure: I take public transportation and I’m in the 30 to 34 minute range (on a good day).

Thus, in order to (literally) “stand still” with the same level of accessibility, say you only want to spend 30 minutes to get to work, and the population keeps growing (particularly in and around cities), and the new comers are bringing their cars or buying new cars, what is your place going to do? The typical response, more lanes. In the 2000s we’re getting creative with HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes, HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes, and a few others. Curiously, commuter buses, trains, and light rail are almost never thought of. In the American context, I would argue that this is part and parcel of our society’s “I’m an independent American and I don’t have to share my space with strangers!” After all, American’s took the European concept of private gardens for the rich and “democratized” it with the suburbs. Granted your suburban lot isn’t the palace of Versailles, but its private, and its a garden, and its MINE. So is that car parked out front too.

So as roads get wider and cars multiply, I stumbled upon an interesting geographic thought. Not only are pedestrians increasingly at risk from vehicles (a two ton vehicle versus a 100 lb. woman is no contest), there’s a noticeable geographic impact as well. We’re being forced underground.

Recently, I moved to Arlington, Virginia. Fantastic place and one of the main selling points, an underground for pedestrians! As the map below shows, there are shops built underneath the streets and buildings. Walking around, it has a small-town market sort of vibe to it. What helps is that there are sky lights and other natural light sources liberally sprinkled throughout the system to lighten up the underground street. And a good thing to, without these natural light sources it would feel like a catacomb. Much like some of the underground in Seoul, below the designer shops and perfume parlors, where other merchants sell not-so-designer items. While I’m thankful for this safe space to wander around at leisure, its sad to think that to make a place “walkable” or “walk-friendly” its forced underground. I get the feeling the community is still young, so I’m anxious to see if it grows.

Crystal City Underground, ca. 2000s (via

On a related note, I attended a National Geographic Society talk/seminar/thing last fall (October?) by Daniel Raven-Ellison. As part of his lecture he played a clip, or a short film, of a partially-blind’s woman experience in London. For me, I appreciated being shown a city, that I’m somewhat familiar with, through a different perspective. At night, the narrator relied primarily on sound as vision was more difficult and talked about how the sounds of the city change from place to place. The camera is dark for most of this so you here the story, as its being told on the street. London, you could hear, was a walkable pedestrian city.

I used to think D.C. was a walkable pedestrian city, after an unfortunate accident with a taxi and testing that video’s message, I realized its not. I closed my eyes sitting outside a coffee shop downtown, all you can hear are cars. And car horns.

Hello, underground.