It’s been nearly a year and a half since I’ve taken a break from near-daily blogging, and we all need some time off eventually. I’ll be spending a little over a week in Japan, where nearly 130 million people live along thin slivers of coastline. I’m very much looking forward to it. When I return, I’m sure I’ll be chock full of new perspectives on density.
Ian Sample, reporting for the Guardian:
“Everybody in Eurasia can trace their linguistic ancestry back to a group, or groups, of people living around 15,000 years ago, probably in southern Europe, as the ice sheets were retreating,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at Reading University.
Linguists have long debated the idea of an ancient Eurasiatic superfamily of languages. The idea is controversial because many words evolve too rapidly to preserve their ancestry. Most words have a 50% chance of being replaced by an unrelated term every 2,000-4,000 years.
But some words last much longer.
Words that sound similar in at least four of the studied languages? “I”, “we”, “man”, “mother”, “to split”, “worm”, and “bark”.
Richard Florida, writing at the Atlantic Cities:
Wyoming tops the list with an increase of nearly 80 percent. North Dakota is second and Rhode Island third, both with increases of roughly 70 percent. Hawaii, Vermont, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and South Dakota round out the top 10.
There’s a surprising link between overall suicide rates and population density. (Florida is discussing increases, which is related but different.)
Emily Badger, reporting for the Atlantic Cities:
Segregated regions – by race as well as skills – have slower rates of income growth and property value appreciation. And this isn’t just true for minority families stuck in segregated pockets of inner-city poverty. It’s true for everyone, the suburbs and city alike.
A bunch of economists and a blogger are trying to dissect the riddle of why metropolitan population density has fallen in the United States. Robert Shiller (yes, that Robert Shiller) seems to have unknowingly kicked off the whole thing when he wrote an essay a few weeks ago in which he said housing prices have actually been pretty stable when you adjust for inflation.
Bill McBride took issue with that, essentially saying that because land is scarce in cities, the value of the land (and the homes on it) should go up. Noah Smith didn’t quite agree with McBride, arguing that changes in transportation cost—everything from automobiles to telepresence—will counter the effects of population density over time, which is why house prices should remain flat. Paul Krugman jumped in and sided with Smith, mostly, citing the issue of declining metro population density across the United States.
Then Felix Salmon, the blogger, entered the picture. He wrote a post a few days ago laying out his solution to the riddle of why metro population density is declining. Rich people, he says, are moving to the city in larger numbers, and because they can afford more space, urban population densities are either holding steady or falling. That’s been pushing less wealthy people out to the suburbs and beyond. I’m skeptical that’s the real reason.
Most of the previous decade’s growth in the U.S. happened in the exurbs, those far flung outposts on the fringes of metro areas. There, populations rose by about 5 percent, much higher than the zero to 2 percent elsewhere throughout metro areas, including low-density but closer-in suburbs. People forgoing suburbs for the exurbs—that’s a nuance of the statistic that makes me question Salmon. If people are being driven out of the city because of high rents, then the suburbs should be growing swiftly, too. But they’re not—at least not as much as the exurbs.
Rather than reacting to what the rich are doing in the city, I think it’s more the result of how most of the rest of us would like to live. The exurbs are closer, by many measures, to the small town American ideal than the city or even the suburbs. Exurbs have single-family homes, big lots, wide streets, and a nearby countryside. The city doesn’t have that, and many suburbs don’t anymore, either—as cities swell, they’re becoming indistinguishable from the city. The exurbs are the new suburbs.
Krugman tries to drive home his point, saying, “the average American lives in a quite densely populated neighborhood, with more than 5000 people per square mile.” As such, he says, “real” America isn’t a small town, but rather something like metropolitan Baltimore. By pure statistics, he’s right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. is a country trending toward Baltimore. A statistical snapshot can’t outweigh decades of cultural legacy. Most Americans may live like Baltimoreans, but do they want to?
Our cultural tendencies suggest we don’t. As long as the American ideal is to live in a small town—which to many people¹ means big yards, small downtowns, and concomitant low population densities—then that’s where we’re heading as a nation. If cities are to succeed, maybe they need to look to small towns for inspiration. Not the low densities—it wouldn’t be much of a city, then—but the more abstract qualities that draw people to them.
- Not necessarily me, though that’s a post for another time. ↩
Photo by Northfielder.
Lily Kuo, writing for Quartz:
Bizarre buildings have increasingly been piercing China’s skylines, earning the country a reputation for being “a playground for bad design.” Unattractive Chinese buildings have become so commonplace that a Chinese architectural firm, Archcy, has started surveying residents on what they believe are the country’s 10 ugliest buildings (article in Chinese). One architect last year said choosing just 10 was “very hard” but a million he could do.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, writing about California’s Central Valley for the New York Times:
It’s easy to let yourself be overwhelmed by the agricultural geometry of the valley, all those rows seeming to rush past as you drive. But to understand its true immensity and capacity for transformation, you have to drop down off the interstate and onto the valley floor.
There is something stunning in the way the soil has been engineered into precision. Every human imperfection linked with the word “farming” has been erased. The rows are machined. The earth is molded. The angles are more rigid, and more accurate, than the platted but unbuilt streets out where easy credit dried up during the housing crisis. This is no longer soil. It is infrastructure, like the vast concrete sluice of the California Aqueduct, like the convoluted arrays of piping that spring up everywhere at the corners of fields.
NASA Earth Observatory:
Thetford Forest, at least as it appears today, would not exist were it not for human intervention. The forest was created after World War I to prop up sagging timber supplies. Authorities planted stands of lowland pine in uniform rows in place of thorny evergreen shrubs (gorse) that grew naturally amid the sandy, heath-covered landscape. Today the forest is a popular recreational area, and the pine stands are periodically harvested for timber. Meanwhile, the ecosystem that Thetford Forest replaced—lowland heath—is now one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in Europe.
Peter Crane, being interviewed by Roger Cohn for Yale e360:
When we think about flowering plants, there are about 350,000 living species. And in an evolutionary sense, they’re equivalent to that one species of ginkgo. They’re all more closely related to each other than they are to anything else. But the ginkgo is solitary and unique, not very obviously related to any living plant.
Ginkgoes are fonts of great trivia. One of my favorites: In the autumn, ginkgoes will shed their leaves in rapid fashion, in some cases going from golden yellow to completely bare in less than a day.
Kareem Fahim, reporting for the New York Times:
After two decades of steady declines and modest increases, the birthrate in 2012 reached about 32 for every 1,000 people — surpassing a level last seen in 1991, shortly before the government of the longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, expanded family planning programs and publicity campaigns to curtail population growth that he blamed for crippling Egypt’s development. Last year, there were 2.6 million births, bringing the population to about 84 million, according to preliminary government figures.
It turns out Wikipedians have had a very detailed discussion on the topic. Their current selection on the article for “Human” is of a southeast Asian man and woman, both farmers, who are not wealthy but not destitute, either. Given population demographics, that’s probably about right.
But what’s interesting to me is the background—a rolling landscape, partially forested, that’s a mix of pastoral and agricultural uses. Does this image also represent the average human habitat?
Jennifer Medina, reporting for the New York Times:
“This is kind of ground zero for a new immigrant America,” said Daniel Ichinose, a demographer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “You have people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese and Spanish all living together and facing many common challenges.”
Jim Yardley, reporting for the New York Times:
India is often demarcated along lines of caste or class. But many of India’s rapidly growing cities are also delineated by the legal status of where people live. For years, as migrants have poured into Indian cities in search of work and opportunity, illegal settlements, often slums, have sprung up in the absence of available, affordable low-income or even middle-class housing. Many of these settlements have grown into bustling districts more populous than many American cities, yet lacking amenities and legal protections, and residents face the perpetual threat of eviction.
Michael Kimmelman, reporting for the New York Times:
A struggle — and also a race — pits the forces of collapse against the halting emergence of a new urban class, born in the aftermath of the revolution. Egyptians have long been experts at fending for themselves in a top-down system where the president ruled by fiat and the government was unaccountable. But now they must improvise as never before. This means that Egyptians are figuring out anew how they relate to one another and to the city they have always occupied without quite fully owning — figuring out how to create that city for themselves, politically and socially, as well as with bricks and mortar.
David Wallis, reporting for the New York Times:
A new apartment complex in Hamburg, Germany, intends to generate heat, as well as revenue, from growing the micro-organism. The five-story Bio Intelligent Quotient (B.I.Q.) building, which was expected to become fully operational on Wednesday, has a high-tech facade that looks like a cross between a Mondrian painting and a terrarium but is actually a vertical algae farm.
I don’t even know what to think about this one.
Henry Grabar, writing for the Atlantic Cities:
The Bushes are passionate about sustainable architecture, and the Center has reflective roofs, solar panels, and the infrastructure to harvest rainwater. It is LEED Platinum-certified.
Seriously? I’m not doubting Grabar’s reporting on this, but I’m struggling to square the Bushes’ “passions” with his actions while president.
Adrianne Appel, reporting for NOVA Next:
There is so much particulate matter in the air in heavily developed regions like North America and Europe—mostly from pollutants—that scientists are unable to easily study which particles impact cloud formation and how. The “cleanest” atmosphere in rural North America, for example, has 2,000 or more particles per cubic centimeter; most are from pollution. Those numbers soar near cities, where densities can be as high as 10,000 to 100,000 particles per cubic centimeter. “There is too much noise in the atmosphere,” Martin says.
There are a few places where particulate signals are quieter.
One guess where one of those is.
Emily Badger, writing at the Atlantic Cities:
For decades, cities have reflected the neat separation of work and home, with residences in one part of town, offices and industry in another, and infrastructure (highways, parking garages, hub-and-spoke transit systems) built to help connect us between the two around what has been for many people a 9-to-5 work day. But what happens when more people start to work outside of offices, or really anywhere – at all times?