Sunday, August 18, 2013

Telling stories by mapping race and population density.

I was recently directed to a hypnotic map that uses 2010 census data to display all 308,745,538 residents of the United States, colored-coded by race category (See also an article on The data have been placed in a convenient Google Maps medium so that you can zoom in and out anywhere in the continental USA. The result is delightful.

The map was created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service and displays white residents as blue dots; black residents as green dots; hispanic residents as orange dots; asian residents as red dots; and all "others" as brown dots. The color coding--indeed the census itself-- glosses over the many complexities of race as a personal identifier. Nevertheless, it very clearly displays a legacy of legally sanctioned and de facto racial segregation in America regions and cities. 

A view of the entire nation hints at multiple fascinating stories about race in American history and continental settlement patterns more generally. Notice, for example the 'string of pearls'  that stretches through the central plains. These are county seats connected by state and county roads. County seats in these states were often placed arbitrarily in the middle of rectangular counties shaped by the Land Ordinance of 1785.

The spatial distribution of race across the continent offers unending stories. In the Midwest and the Rust Belt, non-white residents concentrate in cities, where immigrant populations settled throughout the twentieth century and Black Americans migrated after the civil war and in the middle twentieth century. The story is different in the South and the West. The Appalachian Mountains form a norther boundary to a "Black Belt" that stretches through the rural south: a legacy of slavery.  Notice the American Indian reservations in northern Arizona and the Hispanic population along the Texas-Mexico border.  California's cities are endless conurbations, and the state's central valley is home to a predominantly Hispanic population.

Zoom in, and it's quickly apparent that racial segregation exists in cities all over the United States: north and south; east and west; big and small. Click to enlarge the selections below, but really you should just check out the website yourself.

St. Louis, MO

Southern California

Champaign-Urbana, IL

Racial segregation, of course, is no accident. It was imposed upon cities through a mix of policies and business practices, decades after slavery was outlawed by the constitution.  Below, I've pasted a screen shot of Charlotte in 2010 and a "Residential Security" or a"redlining" map of Charlotte from 1935. (I've rotated the redlining map so that north= up.) Redlining is discriminatory lending. It designated different neighborhoods as relatively good or bad investments. Neighborhoods with white, western European inhabitants got the "A" designation. Black, Latino, Jewish, and Eastern European neighborhoods received lower designations. Of course, if a neighborhood cannot secure financial capital (including mortgages and home improvement loans), it begins to deteriorate physically and socially.  Those who can afford to move do so, and take with them social and financial capital. What remains is poverty that is very hard to escape.  With some exceptions (e.g. "gentrified" neighborhoods) the mark of redlining remains.

It would be fascinating to see Cable's map as a time series, both to visualize how the spatial distribution of race has changed (or not changed) over time, and to see the dynamics of residential densities overall. If the map also showed commercial/employment densities the map could be used to better understand sprawl.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Can an emerging "culture of sharing" pave the way to sustainable community?

I recently moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, a sprawling, automobile obsessed city, despite some seemingly serious attempts to install light rail transit and pedestrian greenways. I’m thrilled with the opportunity to teach urban planning at UNC Charlotte, but less than thrilled that commuting to work will require sitting in traffic 30 minutes each way.

So it was with some irony that I listened to a public radio segment this morning highlighting an apparent generational shift in the symbolic importance of automobiles. A recent study published by researchers at the University of Michigan reveals that teenagers are less and less likely to possess a drivers' license: In the 1970s, eight out of ten American teens had a drivers’ license; today only six out of ten American teens have one.

This trend may have something to do with a larger shift in attitudes about driving and vehicle ownership. In the middle twentieth century, access to a car was a highly symbolic rite of passage, and practical freedom from parental control!  Even at the cusp of the millennium (when this author turned 16), access to my father’s old Buick Riviera was essential my and my friends’ social life. Apparently in the last decade, the symbolic importance of individual car ownership has begun to diminish as young people use social media to access transportation alternatives, namely free or cheap rides from friends, friends of friends, and the general twitterverse. Additionally, teens are so interested in "staying connected" that they'd rather sit in a passenger seat and tweet than focus on the road.

According to blogger Michael Hyatt, social media is allowing a more democratic exchange of information, facilitating an emerging “culture of sharing.” While some indict social media as ego-centric, Hyatt explains that social media, encourages individuals to share recommendations, expertise, contacts, and empathy. This cultural shift has the potential to unlock some important opportunities for urban sustainability planning.

My research focuses on social strategies for reducing energy and resource consumption, specifically strategies employed in ecovillages—grassroots communities dedicated to low impact lifestyles.  I’ve found that the individuals in ecovillages are able to live at much lower levels of consumption (as low as 10 percent the average American) as a result of an investment in cooperative and communicative skills that make sharing capital resources much easier.  I am convinced that such cooperation will be imperative to meeting basic public services and metabolics, as natural resource stocks reach their “peak” levels and the consequences of super-consumption grow increasingly difficult to ignore.

Individuals in ecovillages invest weekend after weekend to non-violent communication and consensus governance skills. These skills facilitate the sharing of cars, recreational space, toilets, appliances, and energy production infrastructure that most Americans are either reluctant to share or outsource to public utilities. These skills are not natural. They are learned and very deliberately applied.

But what if a “culture of sharing” eliminated the need to invest in such skills? If it is truly a cultural shift, as commentators allege, and this shift enhances empathy and willingness to share, then might cooperative housing and ecovillage-style living come more naturally to the next generation of adults? And if so, could this cultural shift (socio-technical landscape pressure) ease the regulatory and financial changes necessary for low-energy housing production?

Would love your thoughts.