Shrinking cities

I’m a bit late on commenting here, as the shrinking cities stuff was all over the news about a week ago. First off, some links:

Richard Florida on NPR
Ed Glaeser in the NYT

I get to save myself some work today, as I don’t have much to add that Glaeser doesn’t cover here. Park space for current residents is a better use the land.

What strikes me as interesting about the discussion comes from the original reporting in the UK Telegraph. It is the way in which Kildee conflates his idea with “fighting sprawl.” It’s almost like “fighting sprawl” is a magic legitimization of anything planners wish to do. Flint is hardly in the position of “fighting” to avoid excess land consumption. But, as Glaeser suggests, there’s nothing much interesting here, and Kildee’s self-promotion via changing land uses isn’t particularly sinister. Overall, it’s a sensible enough thing to do where land for housing is virtually worthless.

Suing Pleasanton Over Sprawl

One of my unbelievably smart undergraduates, Alexene Farol, noted via Facebook the other day that the state of California (Jerry Brown, AG) is suing the city of Pleasanton over a 13 year-old rule that caps housing units at 29,000 for the city. It currently has 27,000.

As I said to Alexene when she raised the point, I have no idea how Pleasanton got away with this in the first place–it strikes me as both a clumsy and obvious attempt at exclusionary zoning. But I’m not an attorney, so we consulted Jesse Richardson at Virginia Tech.

Sprawl is not a housing-unit problem, per se, or a “too many people” problem. It’s a land consumption problem. Regulating the first, as Pleasanton has done, simply disallows housing unit growth in the city and thus (because as Jesse says: “growth control is not birth control”), residential growth occurs elsewhere, increasing commutes.

I don’t generally echo the New Urbanist party line that Jerry Brown does. There is plenty within their vision that doesn’t hold up, either empirically or theoretically, such as the notion that rail investment and compact development increases land values near stations (true, via more amenities) and we get more affordable housing, too (probably not, except for a short-term increase in housing unit supply, which even at “dense” US densities (i.e., not particularly dense, even when we call it density) evaporates vis-a-vis metropolitan growth). Householders aren’t in the habit of considering affordability when they know they have one of a restricted number of units while demand is increasing.

However, in this case…I can’t imagine Pleasanton getting away with doing this.

The climate change bill and low income families

The climate change bill is, like most Federal legislation, an amalgam of good and lousy policy. For the most part, it’s
a decent attempt, except for the part where we are supposed to prompt consumers to save energy without raising their energy costs appreciably.

However, there are protections for low-income energy users. Double however, from the limited research on current usage of lifeline pricing mechanisms, it looks like only a fraction of the households eligible for coupons based on income actually use them. Given how little we are willing to raise costs, this perhaps shouldn’t surprise me. In climate change policy, we should get a lot more aggressive here and suck up a carbon tax and provide lifeline options–and keep our distributional focus on the fact that impoverished Americans, while we want to protect them, have obligations as well to the much more dangerously impoverished and imperiled groups internationally. People need to be sent a price signal, even if that price signal is discounted, to help them understand the costs of their choices.

The economic value of whales

A report from Australia was released in time for the International Whaling Conference in Portugal. The report argues that whale-watching, as a tourist industry, outstrips the economic value of dead whales sold for food and other products.

While I haven’t looked at the report, it strikes me that this is a pretty obvious result on the valuation, for a variety of reasons. We have with whales the resource-city conflict that comes from years of traditional resource use bumping up against a newly urbanized and rapidly urbanizing global population. The former means a dwindling group of people for whom the direct slaughter of animals is a common practice and necessity, and a growing population for whom resource extraction and use is removed from their daily lives. This leads to governance conflicts in which neither one really recognizes the validity of the others’ claims. The one group decries the destruction of important natural resources, significant for their aesthetic and ecological value. The other group denigrates the former’s valuation as so much yuppified playspace creation.

I’ve never found either of these arguments to be particularly compelling as a means for constructing a rule about just practices in resource use. Justice here, like in many governance contexts, depends on a lot of factors. We need to know a lot more about the particular history of the people and the places engaged in the debate. Inuit claims of cultural importance and subsistence use? Those pass a believability test. The clubbing of baby seals to clothe your own kids? While I don’t like it and I don’t want to watch it, yeah, fine, it seems to hold together for somebody living life on an ice sheet. However, if you are clubbing seals to sell to a global fur trade so you can pay for your internet service provider and power boat?

This gets us into the muddy water of authenticity, but I think the debate belongs there. If you are going engage in global trade, then it seems unlikely that you will be able to reject–nor should you be able to reject–the cosmopolitan mores which that engagement suggests. Which means, in turn, the eyes of the world are on, with some level of regulatory judgment in turn.

And this means the Japanese and Norwegians can not equate their claims about culture and whaling with those of indigenous people. These are modernized economies–wealthy economies–where whalers use modern equipment. At some point, their claims that it’s unfair for the US to lobby for access to a small take of whales for its indigenous groups in Alaska have to fall on deaf ears in the global discussion.

Here’s a more articulate discussion from BBC News.

Rethinking passenger rail safety

Rail advocates have been quick to come forward both after last year’s Metrolink tragedy and yesterday’s DC Metro accident that commuting by rail is far safer than commuting by car.

These kinds of statistics aren’t very useful, as Lee Clarke points out in Worst Cases. He shows that while it is safer to travel by car when you measure per mile, it’s safer to travel by plane when you measure in per hour of exposure. I suspect that it is true rail commuting is measurably safer regardless what person-level measure of exposure you use.

What concerns me, however, isn’t the comparison: it’s what the Metro crash suggests about rail congestion (yes, there is such a thing, and DC is looking at it) and what that rail congestion means objectively for rail safety. I suspect that it is getting worse, and that that is itself a problem regardless of whatever risks are associated with cars.

Ethanol explosion

One of the topics I study is hazardous materials transport, so this accident on Sunday caught my eye. Deaths to nonemployees are extremely rare in the hazmat world–engineering has done an amazing job with hazmat containers. Nonetheless, these types of evacuations are more common than we think. I have a new study coming out (I hope soon) describing the spatial distribution of severe hazmat events, like evacuations. Stay tuned.

One of my favorite environmental writers

William Langewiesche appears regularly in the Atlantic, and I think his work is just fantastic–right up there with John McPhee. Here is a collection of my favorites:

Eden: A Gated Community: After making a fortune as founder of North Face and Esprit, Douglas Tompkins embraced the principles of deep ecology. Then, forsaking civilization, he bought a Yosemite-sized piece of wilderness in Chile, where only he and a like-minded few would live. They intended to show the world how an eco-community could flourish even as the ancient forest was kept pristine. Tompkins ran into one big problem: other people.

Profits of Doom: One of the most polluted cities in America learns to capitalize on its contamination.

The Ship Breakers: At Alang, in India, on a six-mile stretch of oily, smoky beach, 40,000 men tear apart half of the world’s discarded ships, each one a sump of toxic waste. Environmentalists in the West are outraged. The shipbreakers, of course, want to be left alone — and maybe they should be.

Langewiesche has a book out that I am going to go buy when I get a chance to walk over to the book store: The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom of Chaos, and Crime.