Village Green: Revitalizing Cincinnati's Historic Over-the-Rhine (Part 3 - exciting progress portends a national model)
Does geometry bias our view of how neighborhoods work?
Imagine a neighborhood that looks like this:
On any given block, there might be a handful of small apartment buildings—three-flats—which are usually clustered near intersections and on major streets. Everything else is modest single-family homes, built on lots the same size as the three-flats.
What kind of community is this? Well, if you were to walk, bike, or drive around it, you would spend most of your time in front of these bungalows, which make up, on the block pictured above, fully 75 percent of the buildings. Visually, they define the landscape; the three-flats are accents, notable but clearly in the minority.
If you lived in this community—particularly if you lived in one of the bungalows—this visual character might be something you’re attached to, and identify with. You might begin to define your neighborhood by these bungalows, and expect the neighborhood’s future changes to conform with this identity.
And yet there’s something curious here: equal numbers of families live in bungalows and three-flats in the neighborhood pictured above. There are nine bungalows, each with one family; and three three-flats, each with three. (And if any of those three-flats have converted garden apartments, there are more people in the three-flats!)
But basic rules of geometry mean that if there are equal numbers of people in higher-density and lower-density housing types in the same neighborhood, the people in the lower-density housing will take up much more space—and, maybe, have an advantage in defining the identity of their neighborhood. (You’ve certainly noticed a similar dynamic with maps of the presidential race by county: a sea of low-density counties in red visually swamps the fewer, but much higher-density, counties in blue.)
Does this matter? I think yes, because the power to define a neighborhood’s publicly accepted identity also brings with it a great amount of power in shaping its future development. That’s especially the case in cities like Chicago, where local aldermen representing relatively small areas have near-veto power over new housing, businesses, and many transportation decisions within their wards. A group of people who manage to convince their alderman that a particular development, or streetscape, is “out of character” with the neighborhood’s identity is often able to defeat it.
This is especially relevant because the low-density/high-density housing usually corresponds to other axes of unbalanced power: within any given neighborhood, people in higher-density housing usually have lower average incomes, and are more likely to be people of color. What’s more, they’re also likely to be younger and renters rather than owners—and so statistically less likely to sit on a neighborhood board, or attend public meetings. A dynamic that privileges the ability of people in low-density housing to define and shape their neighborhood, then, is likely to reinforce some of the most basic inequalities of American society.
Nor is this only a theoretical issue. I thought of it after reading articles like this one, about Jefferson Park on the far northwest side of Chicago. “Should Jefferson Park Keep Suburban Vibe?” the headline asks, referring to some locals’ opposition to any new multifamily housing. Much of Jefferson Park looks a good deal like my imaginary neighborhood above; it’s generally identified with the city’s much-loved “bungalow belt” of early twentieth century single-family homes. Thus its identity as “suburban,” relative to the denser neighborhoods to the east.
But this widely accepted identity—one taken for granted in the headline of a story about whether the neighborhood ought to accept new high-density residents—is an artifact of urban geometry. According to the Chicago area’s metropolitan planning organization, 72 percent of the residential land in Jefferson Park is taken up with single-family homes. But most people who live in Jefferson Park—52 percent—actually live in an apartment or condo.
There’s obviously no smoking gun here about the power to define the future of the neighborhood. Can a neighborhood where most people live in multifamily housing be said to have a “suburban vibe” in this sense? If not, does that mean any of the people who strongly oppose new multifamily housing, and the people who would live in it, would change their minds? Or would their rhetoric be less powerful to those (probably the vast majority) who don’t have a strong opinion? To the alderman?
It’s hard to know. But it seems unlikely—especially if you believe any of the arguments made by people like Sonia Hirt about the cultural power of the idea of the single-family home—that these sorts of constructed identities don’t have some kind of effect on the paths that neighborhoods take.
Of course, there is a flip side to the way that urban geometry distorts people’s perceptions of how most of their neighbors live. And that’s that it’s possible to add much more housing without changing the visual character of the neighborhood in the same proportion. The question is whether it’s possible to add that housing—contributing, on average, to more diverse, affordable, and sustainable cities—when people believe (rightly or wrongly) that the character of their neighborhood must change to accommodate it.
Here’s my new pressure canner. This particular model can hold 19 pint jars or 14 quart jars at a time. I took one look at it and named it Hilda after my great aunt from the Polish Jewish side of the family. She’s a kind generously proportioned woman with an ample bosom who’s still going strong in her 90’s. So what’s the deal with a pressure canner?
I’m working my way through a series of techniques and practices to increase my own household resilience. This particular strand of re-skilling (learning things our great grandparents did as a matter of course) started when I had entirely too many fresh guavas from the garden and couldn’t eat them or give them away fast enough. So I experimented with water bath canning to preserve them. The result is similar to apple butter. A more experienced person would have done a better job, but it’s not half bad on toast in the morning.
But the water bath method only works with high acid foods like fruit. The pressure canner allows me to preserve low acid things that require higher heat and more precise sterilization like meat and vegetables. Freezers are wonderful so long as there’s electricity. But having home made shelf-stable ready-to-eat meals on hand solves a lot of problems and compliments my already well established pantry. I started by making a big batch of chicken soup. The next day I took a jar with me to work for lunch. Super easy.
Beef stew came next. The day after I canned the stew I gave it a test drive for lunch. It was perfectly good, but a bit bland. Next time I’ll be more aggressive with the salt and spices. The point here is to have a wide range of every day foods available that also have the side benefit of being great for emergency preparedness. Keep in mind, an emergency could just be a stretch of unemployment and needn’t involve a single zombie.
My goal is to build up a supply of various jarred meals over the next few months. I have a limited amount of storage space so I’m gradually reorganizing some existing shelves in the garage. (FYI in this part of the world the temperature in the garage is about 55ºF – 65ºF year round. Don’t try this in Toronto or Phoenix.) There are 12 pint jars per case. I can fit 8 cases on one shelf. If I use 3 shelves I’ll fit 288 jars in a space that’s about 4′ x 4′ x 2′. That’s almost a five month supply of lunches and dinners in a super small space. I’ll use these meals a few times a week and gradually rotate and replace the stock.
Yes, yes. I know. Buying canned soup at the store is easier and probably no more expensive than making it at home. And no, I’m not raising my own cattle in the back yard. The concept here is similar to the $78 home grown tomato. Why bother gardening when the stuff in cellophane packages is so cheap and easy? That’s really not the point. Once a productive garden is established and the tools and habits of preserving the bounty become routine a subtle but powerful shift occurs. Buying everything you need from the store is easy. But it requires cash. So long as you have a cash income everything works beautifully. But if your income goes away or diminishes, or if the modern just-in-time supply chain wobbles for any reason your critical dependencies will make life tedious.
Being resilient isn’t about going off grid or becoming “self sufficient” or hunkering down in a bunker waiting for the Apocalypse. It’s about detaching yourself from the arrangements that make you vulnerable to forces beyond your control. I personally take great pleasure in gardening and tinkering in the kitchen. And I sleep better at night knowing I have a built in set of cushions to help me weather a storm. Call me crazy.
Researchers have detected a disease threatening cycling infrastructure investment. Although city administrators continue to invest in living streets, until cyclists becomes self-aware, the automobile will continue to dominate cities.
James Hamblin, M.D. is a writer and senior editor at The Atlantic magazine. He hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk, and recently released a book of the same title. He’s been featured in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, Time, and on Comedy Central. BuzzFeed even named him “the most delightful M.D. ever.” Today Hamblin weighs in on the Smart Water versus tap water debate, reveals how much sex you should have, and shares why he once went weeks without a shower.
- Your book “If Our Body Could Talk” is an extension of a series of videos you did for The Atlantic. How did that all start?
For 150 years the Atlantic has been a print magazine and then they created their website. We started to produce videos, like a lot of legacy publications are doing now, and I was one of the first people to raise my hand and say I’d like to be in front of the camera. We just started filming around the office. That grew to the point that this year I got to interview President Obama. I was just in the right place at the right time and I’ve been supported by people who believe there’s a place for talking about health and science with some degree of humor in a way that not a lot of other publications, TV shows and news outlets tend to do. We are moving into a domain taking reader questions and trying to help people figure out what misunderstandings are out there and help them try to make sense of things in plain language, in a fun way.
- What’s the genesis of the title If Our Bodies Could Talk?
It just made me laugh. You know, our bodies can talk and it sort of sounded pseudo-new age to me like something that might come out of the self-help aisle, but I’d never meant it that way. A lot of people don’t hear it that way, they just think that I am genuinely thinking we should listen to the rhythms of our bodies, which is not untrue, but it wasn’t exactly what I was going for. There are a lot of these books that are full of trivia and I wanted to take that form and use it to draw out and think about bigger questions. One of the exemplary facts is that, by far, the largest determinant in our health is our environment, our neighborhood and socioeconomic status.
- What is it about our neighborhood that makes it such an important determinant of our health?
You probably know more about that than I do about that, but when people start asking questions about their health, they start thinking, “Okay, what do I know about nutrition, about medication, about hospitals, about doctors’ visits.” I wanted to make a point that those are not really among the biggest determinants. I don’t get into neighborhood design, but I do get into the importance of healthy relationships and access to continuous cares.
- So there’s this adage about drinking at least six glasses of water per day. How much should we be drinking?
The answer, like almost every answer, is that it really varies person-to-person and day-to-day. Water is all that we ever need to stay hydrated. But with that said, when you ask hydration experts and sports medicine physiologists to verify, they say there’s no way to give a hard and fast rule. Everyone is unique and that’s why it’s so hard to make rules that can be blanket-statement issued. Generally, they say your urine is the best of indicator of your hydration status. And the overarching idea in the hydration section of the book is that all these products that we’re sold – Vitamin Water, Gatorade, etc. – are doing nothing for us. Ideally your urine should be a light yellow color, but clear is also usually fine. The only caveat there is that people can overdo it.
- What is better – Smart Water or tap water?
Assuming that you live in the city where you have state access to tap water, then that’s all you need. There will be trace elements in it that can be characterized as electrolytes. One of the researchers I worked with told me that there are comparable amounts of electrolytes in a lot of city water as there are in Smart Water. Smart Water is marketed with electrolytes in it, but they are very few and far between and they are not delivered in a way that’s calculated to hydrate you any better than tap water. You can save a lot of money in most cities by drinking the tap water.
- At Blue Zones we talk a lot about sex and longevity. How much sex should we be having a month to maintain optimal health?
It’s similar to the water question, where it is tempting to want a magic number. While we know people who are in healthy relationships and are sexually active tend to be healthier and happier on average, there’s the possibility you can create worry for people who don’t have good relationships if I were to issue an edict that said you needed do it five times a week or else you are at risk. I say it has to do with self-knowledge and understanding of what makes you happy and grounded and what works for building your relationship in your own circumstances. If you can put yourself in a situation where you are having regular sex and you are feeling good about it and so is the other person, then you are more likely to be healthy.
- What is the difference between males and females when it comes to sex?
The embryological origins of the penis and clitoris are much more similar than people think. And the idea of a female Viagra is one that’s been in the news a lot. It’s interesting that with research on a female Viagra they created a drug that was actually a modification of a psychiatric medication, which was supposed to increase your libido. It sort of changes your mental state and makes you more interested in having sex, maybe similar to what some people experience when they drink alcohol. Male Viagra is simply a vasodilator, a drug that dilates your veins and gives you an erection. It doesn’t change your mental state. So that was just an issue of a fundamental double standard in what seems to be problem in low libido between men and women. But, in fact, females have the same mechanism for dilation and sexual arousal as men. So I can’t recommend that women take Viagra, as the FDA does not clinically approve it for that, but it would have the same effect.
- What is your take on why we age?
In the book, I always come back to the question of nature versus nature, which is an age-old duality in science. Some people say aging is about how we live our lives and some people say that it’s built into our genetic code. As it turns out, it’s this complex interaction of what genes we have and how we live our lives in ways that turn certain parts of that genomic code on and off. Even as we’ve gotten really high tech with the science of understanding aging, it seems to constantly confirm the age-old basic tendency of healthy living that we’ve known for a long time. Live a generally active lifestyle, stay socially connected, don’t be over stressed, sleep well, eat reasonably in moderation and consume a mostly plant based diet. There hasn’t been a breakthrough or any silver bullet or short cut to stop the process of aging.
- You once went weeks without a shower. Why did you do that? What did your girlfriend think of that?
I started thinking about the mites that live on our skin and how body odor is produced. It become evident from looking at the signs that compounds similar to the bacteria that live in our armpits produce body odor. It was just a way to change that ecosystem. Maybe those odor-producing bacteria would fall out of power. And so I started playing around with that and I still never use, this is going to be a big disclosure here, but I guess if your readers are ready for it. I never used soap apart from on my hands and only occasions I rinsed off if I really need to and it’s been fine. It took a long time to adjust to that, for my body to adjust. My girlfriend doesn’t mind. She says it doesn’t smell like cologne, but she likes the smell. It’s like a human body smell, but not an acrid type of smell.
1. The long journey toward greater equity in transportation. The observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday got us thinking about how far we’ve come–and how far we have yet to go–having a truly equitable society. We reviewed two recent studies that address lingering racial disparities in transportation. The first sheds some evidence on “driving while black”: given their higher probability of being pulled over for traffic infractions, blacks seem to be quite cautious drivers, with average speeds 8 percent slower than other drivers. A second study shows that there are racial disparities in ride-hailing services; passengers with black-sounding names were more likely to have rides cancelled.
2. Beer and crowd-sourced data. The number of breweries in the US has nearly tripled in the past decade. We’ve used a variety of data sources, including crowd-sourced directories of microbreweries to plot the density of microbreweries in cities across the country. To this, we’ve added Treasury Department data on the total number of breweries per capita in each state. Some clear regional patterns emerge, with the most breweries in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest and the fewest in the South.
3. Has Louisville figured out how to eliminate traffic congestion? Louisville has just started charging tolls to vehicles using its new multi-billion dollar bridges over the Ohio River. But the tolls only apply to three of the five bridges–which creates incentives for drivers to use the non-tolled routes. While we don’t have actual data on traffic patterns, we were able to take a quick look at area traffic cameras. They show that the 10-travel lanes of the new I-65 bridge were nearly empty at rush hour on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Meanwhile, an older, slower, narrower bridge–without tolls–had substantial traffic.
4. An experiment in transportation economics. It turns out that Louisville’s decision to toll some bridges and not toll others creates a kind of natural experiment that will provide some useful data on how much value travelers attach to the time savings associated with highway improvement projects. The economic justification for these investments is that the value of travel time savings exceeds the costs of building new capacity. If users aren’t willing to pay a toll to get these time savings, its a signal that there may be no good economic reason to expand the roads.Must read
1. What have we learned about the causes of gentrification? Two economists for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve have written a review of recent literature on neighborhood change, published in the latest edition of Cityscape. Jacklyn Hwang and Jeremy Lin explore the causes of gentrification, and offer a comprehensive tour of recent scholarship on the subject. They conclude that the answer to the question posed by their article remains elusive. Socioeconomic upgrading appears correlated with central city job growth, improved urban amenities and declining crime, but the patterns of causality are complicated and unclear.
2. How housing choices impair adult friendships. Writing at Vox.com, David Roberts considers the connections between our low density land use patterns and the nature of our adult relationships. Our lower density communities and auto-oriented lifestyles work against three of the critical ingredients that sociologist believe are key to forming friendships: proximity, repeated and unplanned interactions, and an environment that permits us to let our guard down. The antidote? Wallkable communities and lively public spaces that facilitate spontaneous interactions.
3. Infographic on road-pricing equity. Economists love road pricing, but often seem to be the the only ones. Nobody likes to pay for something they perceive to be free, but frequently the most powerful argument is that road pricing will hurt the poor, because tolls represent a larger economic burden for low income households. A new infographic from the UCLA Institute for Transportation Studies tackles that question head on, comparing who pays and how much for a road widening depending on whether its paid for with road pricing or a sales tax increase. The poor actually pay more–and benefit less–when new roads are paid for from sales taxes. (And the USC analysis leaves out the fact that the poor are much less likely to own cars in the first place). A useful tool for talking about the equity implications of road pricing.
1. The Changing Shape of Metropolitan America. Luke Juday of the University of Virginia has updated is invaluable dashboard of radius-based measures of metropolitan socio-economic characteristics to include the latest 2015 American Community Survey data. Juday’s work summarizes census data on educational attainment, income, age, and race and ethnicity by distance from the center of the metropolitan area for each of the 50 largest US metro areas. The dashboard shows the difference between 1990 and 2015 values for each of these variables. Here’s the composite analysis of the 50 largest metros of educational attainment by distance from the central business district (you can also see similar charts for individual metropolitan areas, as well).
This chart shows the growing concentration of well-educated adults within 3 miles of the center of US metro areas. Adult educational attainment is higher now than in 1990, but has grown most rapidly in these close-in neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, there aren’t large differences between the 2012 and 2015 data; the two series are based on overlapping samples from the American Community Survey. This is an terrific resource for neatly summarizing the geography of change within metro areas.
2. The 2015 American Housing Survey. The Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development released the results of the 2015 American Housing Survey which provides detailed data on the housing stock and neighborhood characteristics of 25 of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. The Census website offers a table creator that lets you generate your own cross tabulations of data for particular metropolitan areas. Variables include everything from income, rents, reasons for moving, to the size and amenities of housing units, to data on litter, abandoned properties and whether nearby houses have bars on their windows.