Deborah and Frank Popper on Shrinking Cities in Shelterforce

The dialogue on shrinking cities and triumphing cities has me interested, if a bit flummoxed, about how you capture such phenomena–a bit like our decades old discussion on sprawl, which often bewildered me; there is clearly a definitional and subjective element to it that does really work: you recognize it when you see it, but it’s hard to define in words or numbers.

The Census numbers give us something to hold onto, but like population density, it’s hard to understand what densities mean, or, in this case, what percentage losses mean. Often, there are neighborhoods within a population-losing region that are economically viable; not all parts of Detroit are the same. Similarly, there imminently walkable subareas of Los Angeles, and sprawl-y parts of New York and San Francisco.

Deborah and Frank Popper describe the less quantifiable ideas around shrinking places in this piece in Shelterforce. The overall tone captures the zeitgeist of shrinking: that people have moved on from this place, and it’s not just deserted: it’s left behind, abandoned. And the people are not coming back.

The Poppers argue that places must plan to shrink rather than let the process go, suggesting (among other things) that places use ecological restoration to build up the quality of life for those residents remaining and to keep the place from sliding further.

Picks from this issue of Scientific American

Solving the Cocktail Party Problem might help us improve hearing aids as well as computer speech recognition.

Asthma rates are soaring, particularly in urban areas with poor air quality, and researchers are scrambling to discover why.

Transboundary governance of the Dead Sea: facing extinction from mining and irrigation, Jordan, Isreal, and Syria are coming together.

The new science of early detection earthquakes, with obvious applications.

William Cronon did his job, what more do you want to know?

I’m a regular reader over at the Volokh Conspiracy. Here is Jonathan Adler’s take on the GOP’s FOIA request on UW historian William, and I can’t not respond to some of the arguments I am seeing over there. It’s always a conundrum whether you should answer there or move your points to your own turf, but since I lurk there and this response is long, I’ll post it here.

Argument 1: The liberals abuse FOIA all the time, therefore, this is just the Republicans doing what liberals do all the time. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Palin was subjected to FOIA, yada.

Ok, but since when does “Bobby does it all the time” constitute a legitimate reason for doing something once you are over the age of 7?

The assertion that liberals use FOIA more than conservatives strikes me as an assumption based on impressions and anecdotes rather than empirical evidence. I’ve never seen a study or a survey. I’ve never seen any data. Is there any? Or is this just something that people tell themselves is true?

Why do we need a FOIA request here at all? Cronon told everybody what he thought. Upfront. It’s out there. No secret.

So we need a FOIA request to do what, exactly? Prove that Cronon’s doing his job? That he’s not doing his job? The op-ed proves he did his job.

Because thinking and writing is a professor’s job.

He used the historian’s craft to compare the leadership conduct of a current leader with a past leader and to warn people of potential dangers. It’s not like he spent his days writing romance novels here.

I personally think his comparison to McCarthy was overwrought, but then, I also thought Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes’ statement comparing NPR to the Nazis was wrongheaded, too.
I disagree with them both.

But…but…but what if Cronon made his arguments on company time?

So what if he did?

Making arguments in public–even bad arguments or arguments you consider to be repulsive–is part of a professor’s job.

Argument 2: “Royalty” professors need to be taken down a peg; other state employees are subject to email seizure, so should professors’.

Professors work and sacrifice a very long time to get the privileges they have. I worked for ten years: if you think it’s easy, go try it. Prince Charles inherited his position. No comparison, except that Charles is pasty-white and rather bad on television and lots of professors are pasty-white and bad on television, too.

Second, see above. Professors are subject to FOIA.

It’d just be nice if FOIA requests were used to uncover something we don’t already know or we needed to know rather than to investigate somebody who wrote an op-ed. Again, what’s the FOIA request for? To find out his secret thinkythoughts about Wisconsin leadership? Whether he has political ideas? All that seems pretty clear to me by now.

Argument 3: If any employee in a private company were caught writing emails criticizing his boss on company time or using company bandwidth, he’d be fired.

Ok, first, government and private industry are different and do different things and have different roles, cultures, and obligations. They are different institutions. Last I checked, Republicans were fond of pointing out these differences.

Second, Walker is not Cronon’s boss.

Walker is a public servant. He directs the governor’s office, and he’s the state’s chief executive, but he’s not the CEO, exempt from criticism from anybody who works for the state. It’s not Cronon’s obligation to genuflect or, even, to keep a party line.

In fact, it’s nobody’s role to genuflect, praise, or avoid criticizing American public officials. That’s one of the nifty things about America.

By contrast, Max Nikias is, in fact, my boss, and a wonderful, enlightened, brilliant, gracious, and gifted man he is, too, in every possible way.

Academics may be state employees, but they are free–and have always been free in the US–to critique elected officials.

Milton Friedman did it. I do it. Why?

Because it’s our job to make arguments in public.

Even arguments that sensitive governors and his buddies don’t like very much.

I strongly suspect that Ray LaHood would not like this blog if he read it. I don’t write and think to be liked or to curry favor with this administration or the next one.

I write and think because it’s my job.

Argument 4: I’m a taxpayer and Cronon works for me, and if he did this work on the taxpayer’s dime and with taxpayer bandwidth, then I an entitled to see those emails.

Yeah, sure, whatever. You’re also entitled to inspect the toilet paper in all public buildings to make sure they aren’t using a lavish 4-ply when when a single-ply will do. Entitlement doesn’t mean it’s great use of anybody’s time or worth doing.

William Cronon is also a taxpayer in the state of Wisconsin.

So does he work for Walker or does Walker work for him?

This discussion rather brings up the no-win situation that the contemporary professoriate exists in, particularly for faculty in the humanities.

A. Write an op-ed that annoys people, have them up in your jock for your ideas.

B. Write only for scholarly journals and have them up in your jock for living only in the “ivory tower”; or

C. Write nothing, and have them up in your jock for not being relevant or failing to engage with contemporary social problems.

You might not like what Cronon thinks and writes, but you probably don’t like any number of things that we, as a taxpaying collective, collectively invest in. I hate that my taxes go to fund the US’s apparently permanent state of war. Don’t even get me started on those banker bonuses.

It’s quite obvious that some people hate the fact that we pay collectively for a professoriate. Bootyhootyhoo.

Thomas Sowell actively argues that it’s bad to have a professoriate playing with ideas, as he plays with ideas.

It is in the nature of democratic collective action that no one taxpayer’s preference is strictly enforced. Check in with the residents of Libya to see whose preference set they are living with.

Reading Bill Cronon’s emails

For those in and around the planning academy, we’ve been having a discussion about the request from the head of the Republican Party of Wisconsin to read all of Cronon’s emails since January 1, the ones that contain words of particular interest to them.

Cronon’s response is here. His response is well-reasoned if a mite too long. But his basic takeaway point is that much of his university email has to do with students, and they are entitled to privacy.

The reason for subjecting state emails to FOIA requests are evident enough. But the restriction on political content goes to back to trying to make sure that elected officials and state workers do not use state emails and electronic media to conduct campaigns–at least outwardly. Things from a .gov email address should be about .gov business, not about campaign business.

Various responses have been posted, but one sent in to the planning listserv is potentially very counterproductive: to send Cronon email with the word “Republican” or ‘republican’ in it so that they have to sort through all those emails.

There are text mining methods that take the tedium out of such work, and the resulting word cloud can be interpreted to mean anything. Which is one of the problems with word clouds, in general. So if you were to do anything like that, it would allow the political content to pop out of the analysis, which is what they want.

As it is, I suspect the naturalistic word cloud from Cronon’s emails, if they are anything like mine, would read “CAN I HAVE EXTRA CREDIT?” and “THE COMMITTEE MEETING WILL BE HELD….”

I propose the following:

By all means, read my email from January 1 onward. But for each subject that arises in those emails, you have to write a summary of that subject–only a sentence or two–interpreting the content and context of that subject, the same way a rigorous qualitative researcher would have to do. You want to wade through 10,000+ emails, go right ahead, but you don’t get to use text mining to pull things out of context and create your cudgel with which to beat me until you’ve done the work to understand what I’m writing emails about.

To Cronon’s larger point, that the request is abusing the Freedom of Information Act, yes. It’s kind of interesting that the requester seems to think that all this information should just be sent to him. What country do you live in, Pumpkin? Because in my world, where I regularly go through archival information from big state institutions, I’m spending my life (or student’s lives) actually going to the institutions that have the information I request.

Here’s how FOIA requests go for the average community member who would like information released about any number government documents:

1. You can have the information, but not electronically, and we don’t sort through documents to suit you. You can get the emails, but they will be printed out with big black Sharpie strikethroughs redacting information that identifies students or personnel.

2. You may not leave the building with the big stack of papers. You must photocopy them at 5 cents a page. We don’t want your FOIA requests sucking up taxpayer resources, now do we? Oh, and the copier will be up three flights of stairs, which you will have to run up and down 14 times because the copier (which hasn’t been replaced since the Carter administration) keeps getting jammed, resetting, or refusing your code/card/instructions.

3. Alternatively, you may bring in a pen scanner to scan line by line. That’s some special awesome fun there.

Nothing can be boxed and sent, as that would take up state worker time and postage. You must come to my office, leave proof of your identity, and then work with the archive of my email with the supervision of the librarian. We should do a background check on you beforehand. Can’t be letting the terrorists win by taking advantage of our open government, can we?

Enjoy your reading, sir.

On happier things, William Cronon’s work matters–a lot. As a historian, his work is nothing less than magisterial. I have two favorites to recommend:

Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.


Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature


Finally, let’s look at this scary scary guy who needs such watching:


I bet he *rides a bicycle* to work. Commie.

SPPD Distinguished Lecture: Dalton Conley

Dr. Dalton Conley (NYU)

April 1, 2011 (Friday)
12:30 – 2:00pm
Ralph & Goldy Lewis Hall / RGL 101 (Auditorium)
RSVP: Vicki Valentine

Conley is one of the most formidable researchers in sociology and public policy, particularly in the areas of race and class. Conley is the recipient of the Waterman Award, and the second social scientist after Larry Summers, to win this award. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and his work has been featured in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, NPR, and on Today, 20/20 among others.

Dalton Conley is University Professor and Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He is also Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). He also serves as a Senior Advisor to the UN Millennium Project.

“US Wealth Mobility and Volatility in Black and White”

Despite wealth being central to upward economic mobility and financial security, we know very little about the wealth transmission process. The current paper documents intra- and inter-generational wealth mobility and volatility in the United States among blacks and whites using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. To this end, we attempt to answer four questions:

1. How hard is it for individuals who begin from a position of low wealth in childhood to obtain a position of high wealth in adulthood?
2. How able are individuals to hold onto wealth during their prime working years of adulthood?
3. How do wealth mobility (and security) dynamics differ by race?
4. How does health and health insurance status contribute to wealth volatility?


April 1, 2011 (Friday)
12:30 – 2:00pm
Ralph & Goldy Lewis Hall / RGL 101 (Auditorium)
RSVP: Vicki Valentine

John Whitehead on job creation cost with HSR

Now, John Whitehead is not exactly a scholar who isn’t appreciative of the fact that Americans overuse the automobile. But the money falling from the sky for high speed rail for North Carolina has him doing math over at Environmental Economics:

With about 100,000 annual passengers who earn an average of $23 per hour and valuing travel time at 70% of the wage rate, the annual benefits of cutting 13 minutes of travel time are about $350,000. Valued in perpetuity at a discount rate of 3% yields a present value of $12 million. Compared to $461 million in costs the net benefits are about -$449 million and the benefit-cost ratio is 0.03 (which is less than 1).


John Whitehead is, again, not a scholar you’d typically associate with anti-rail stuff. He’s a sustainability scholar, like me. It’s just really hard to take these project proposals in a world where we supposedly can’t afford to pay people pensions we promised them or K-12 schools, but we can afford to pursue unproductive projects.

I think his $23 an hour wage rate is a bit low. These are systems primarily used by business travels and tourists around the world, so that we could expect to have higher wage rates for time saved.

The comments are enlightening, too, as of course the usual objection comes up: but what about all those external cost savings we get from taking cars off the road? All the accidents avoided and the emissions saved?

These account for a small portion of the total benefit calculation by any measure, and we have to ask whether we will get these benefits at all. In his commentary on Whitehead’s post, Columbia’s David King writes:

I will also note that Google estimates that the 169 mile trip takes 2 hours and 54 minutes by car. So if you are that time sensitive you should probably just drive.

The train trip will take you three hours, the car trip 3 hours. Eventually the car trip may be expected to take longer, however.

Book Review: The Triumph of the City

Ed Glaeser has been making the rounds promoting his new book, The Triumph of the City, and while I don’t love the title, the book is really very good. I read in this literature all the time, so I was expecting a pop version of his previous papers, rehashed. But no. While the book is accessible and he goes over ground that feels like it’s been plowed thoroughly before, he’s got such a forceful and original way of thinking about things that even with well-worn topics (like population densities) he gets you thinking in an original way.

Voila Capture15

Here’s a video of Glaeser discussing the material on BookTV to get you started.

Hazardous materials events by mode, 2000 to 2010

I’ve been fiddling around with the data on serious hazardous materials spills, and I used R to make a graphic that shows the differences in spill frequency by class.

Voila Capture14

The serious spills are distributed among hazardous materials classes similar to the prevalence of their shipping, with one exception. Corrosive materials (Class 8 ) are somewhat more represented in serious spills than in the entire spills record. Because there are so few spills from water transport, those are not illustrated. Infrequent hazardous material classes are also omitted from the figures.

A contrast of the two mosaic plots shows that rail and air modes have caused proportionately more evacuation events than highway shipping for both flammable (class 3) and corrosive materials ( class 8 ). This result is likely due to the volumes that can be transported by these modes, relative to a single truck. The reverse is true for events causing environmental damage, which could be a result of separation of rail and air facilities from other land uses. This separation contrasts with highways, which are more geographically dispersed and come in closer contact with environmentally sensitive areas. Here again, however, corrosive materials are proportionately over-represented among serious spills.

The mosaicplots are made in the R package vcd.

In which epidemiologists tell us what we already knew

I’m on the editorial board of Transportation Research Part A, and it’s an excellent journal by any measure. But one article this morning seemed so promising, and then rather failed to deliver:

Graham-Rowe, E., Skippon, S., Gardner, B. & Abraham, C., 2011, Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

Great, right? Another review, and we probably needed another review after this inappropriately optimistic one appeared in JAPA last year:

Ewing, R. & Cervero, R., 2010, Travel and the built environment, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(3).

The latter review was problematic because it summarized the evidence and then concluded “Yes, well, all the empirical evidence shows small effect and insignificant effect sizes, but we still think our interventions work under the right conditions.”

There comes a point where you have to wonder if those right conditions are feasible if the research can’t find them time and time again.

However, Graham-Rowe sort studies according to quality, stating what’s obvious to everybody: there aren’t enough randomized trials in applied social science research.

Gee, ya think?

There’s a reason why the high quality studies are looking at program evaluations and why the cross-sectional studies look at before and after projects. Unlike medical and psychological research, researchers in my world don’t get to randomly select controls for anything other than programs, and often not even then because there are practical problems with employers or city governments allowing some employees or residents–but not others–to participate in a program that carries a benefit, like being paid not to drive.

So undeniably, we’d have better research if I could select random samples and controls for selected interventions, use our godlike hands to pick drivers up by their heads, place them in case-control groups according to intervention versus non-intervention environments or programs, and make them live there/participate as long as we wanted them to. Unfortunately, doing that sort of thing in societies where human beings have freedom of movement and self determination tends to be frowned on.

The takeaway–AGAIN–is that self-selection and endogeniety go hand and hand. Gargh.

I don’t see a path out of this cycle of research-critique. We’ve hit a stalemate. People who are advocates of particular position–that mixed land uses and transit supply reduce auto use–are like Fox Mulder: “I want to believe.”

Social scientists can try to tinker on the margins of what we have, with instrumental variables and various econometric contraptions strapped on to different datasets, but there’s no way around the residential self-selection problems here.

We can publish critique after critique, and perhaps that’s useful, but I don’t see how. We know where we are with this research–and we also know that planning, policy, and forecasts are thundering ahead with the “I want to believe” attitude. The alternatives to believing aren’t particularly attractive, either.