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?

#AmericanProblems: a Letter to the People of Russia

Dear Friends,

Please accept Z Geography’s most humble apologies for the attitudes of his fellow Anglophones, specifically those that delight in uploading photos of bathrooms, doors, and non-potable water.

Sadly, the first inclination among many of us, being Anglophones, is to immediately point out our infrastructural superiority when we travel to a new and exciting place, especially when that place is associated with a quadrennial and exciting event. I apologize for this.

What makes these attitudes particularly frustrating is the complete lack of empathy.

The World Health Organization, one of several UN organizations tracking the seventh Millennium Development Goal (halving the number of people without access to improved drinking water sources), reported in 2013 (using 2011 data) that 768 million people don’t have access to improved drinking water. And that’s just “improved” drinking water. As our vociferous news correspondents in Sochi will tell you, having an improved drinking water source isn’t necessarily a potable water source. Right now there are more people in the world who don’t have access to clean water than there are people in the United States. One proxy for unclean water is unimproved sanitation (also tracked by the Millennium Development Goals), the same WHO report noted that (in 2011) over 2.5 billion people lacked access to an improved sanitation facility. Of that number, 761 million relied on a public sanitation facility, 693 million use an unimproved sanitation facility (i.e. unclean), and the remaining billion defecated in the open.

This lack of empathy is hardly forgiveable though, considering that we (in the U.S.) are still dealing with our own non-potable water problems.

There isn’t any excuse for the non-thinking masses in Sochi and on Twitter who have, evidently, forgotten all about the 300,000 West Virginians who lost access to clean drinking water when an industrial chemical spilled into their water source. As the New Yorker found, they were told “not to drink the water, cook with it, wash in it, or even use it do laundry.” And the MCMH chemical is LETHAL to humans, or at least – we think so:

“Pretty much all that anyone knows about the health effects of this chemical is what size dose is fatal for rats, and that number comes from a single, non-peer-reviewed study. A crude extrapolation of this number puts the fatal dose for a large adult at a little more than two ounces.” (from the New Yorker)

And then just yesterday (that is 11 February), and again in West Virginia in the same “general area” as last month’s chemical spill, a coal company accidentally released “coal slurry” into a tributary of the Kanawha River. Again, MCMH is one component of the chemical in the slurry. However, as the LA Times reports, state officials say public water intakes were not affected. Last week, the director of Kanawha-Charleston Health Department noted that residents were confused when the state initially indicated the water was safe (following last month’s spill), and then issued safety warnings for pregnant women and re-starting water bottle deliveries.

The director’s family isn’t using tap water, which bears some olfactory signs of containing MCMH (smelling of licorice), and local doctors are advising residents to not drink tap water.

Thus, my friends, kindly disregard the Twits and the “educated” journalists currently infesting your country and remember that there are Anglophones out there who hope that President Putin makes a concerted effort to improve access to clean drinking water for all Russians, regardless of ethnicity, language, or religion.

I wonder if any of the journalists in Sochi are from West Virginia?

Sincerely yours,


Japan’s Womenomics: a Demographic Perspective

Z Geography is out of town this weekend.

A 17 January (2014) USA Today article discusses Prime Minister (of Japan) Shinzo Abe’s proposal to expand child care and pressure on corporations to permit (up to) three years of maternity leave in an effort to increase women’s participation in the economy. Additionally, Abe reportedly instructed government ministries to “boost female workers and managers to 30% by 2020.” According to the article, the government believes these efforts will assist in reversing Japan’s “longtime economic slump” (though it is still the third-largest economy, behind the U.S. and People’s Republic of China).

Prime Minister Abe’s proposal will probably be meet with some indirect and subtle resistance, as the article notes. Women make up 42% of Japan’s workforce (compared to 47% in the U.S.) but only 11% of managers (43% in the U.S.). These statistics highlight whether the solution is rooted in women’s economic participation or, more likely, conservative attitudes preventing the employment of women in corporate leadership roles. As one quote illustrates “the business community is dominated by conservative, older-men who don’t’ want to let go of their privileges.” One observation casts doubt on the government’s motives, it has yet to introduce legislation to “strengthen labor or equal-opportunity” laws.

Taken together, Z Geography ventures that the government’s proposals have less to do with stoking an economic recovery through increased participation of women in the economy (which is the stated objective) and more to do with facilitating increased fertility for Japanese women already employed. True, more women will likely enter the economy thanks to increased child care opportunities and longer maternity leave – but these also benefit already employed women as well. Further as Z Geography and others have discussed, Japan faces a shrinking population (Stage 5 in the Demographic Transition Model) and increasing dependency ratio as proportionally fewer workers are economically available and the population of the elderly expands. These proposals, increasing child care and maternity leave, are likely aimed at increasing the fertility of women in Japan’s labor pool.

A country’s fertility rate is understood as the number of children that a woman will (probably) have over her child-bearing years. Thus, increasing the benefits (or subsidizing in this case) of child birth and rearing will spur employed women to have a child (or second or third). In the long term, these policies could increase the size of Japan’s labor pool, though this is uncertain. One uncertainty is how employed women react, for one women (and couples) may choose to have only one child, which is below replacement level fertility (2.1 children per couple with one child each for the parents and a “.1” child to account for those unable, or unwilling, to have children).

Over the short term, Z Geography questions the economic benefits of these proposals. Based on the statistics reported in the article, it seems that the problem lies not in the participation of women in the economy but a gendered “glass ceiling” that prevents their rise.

Finally, the government’s proposals ignore to other “quick” fixes for the economy and demography – immigration. Given that Prime Minister Abe and his party are considered “conservative” (according to the article), this is not unexpected. Despite this the influx of immigrants into Japan would facilitate an expansion of economic output (and the labor pool) while also increasing the birth rate. As one commenter in Z Geography observed (in no uncertain terms) however, national purity is at stake.

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.