The invisible borders of American culture

Samuel Arbesman, writing at the Atlantic Cities:

We know that [administrative] boundaries are on some level unnatural. Driving around Kansas City, where I live, makes this abundantly clear. Gas price differences aside, it can be difficult to tell which state you’re in, Missouri or Kansas, and the small street of State Line Road does nothing to make it clearer.

But are there more organic borders, brought to life by our own actions and activities? I recently set out, along with a team from MIT and AT&T, to see if I could find an answer?

Some of them match up remarkably well with previous efforts. Others not as much. The different sources of data—and the usage patterns behind them—are likely the reason.

Hydrologic commonwealths

Sarah Rich:

When John Wesley Powell proposed in the late 19th century that state borders be defined around watersheds to form citizen-managed “hydrologic commonwealths,” he was responding not just to what would make the most sense ecologically, but also to what land divisions would mean for social equity given the extremely uneven spread of natural resources across the U.S.

State borders probably aren’t going to change—though it’s fun to imagine they might. Still, this sort of conceptual thinking isn’t for naught, as Australia shows. Victoria and New South Wales both have Catchment Management Authorities that correspond to watersheds boundaries within their borders. The authorities work with land owners and dole out funds to protect soil and water quality, biodiversity, and other ecosystem services.

Brooklyn to get urban science institute

Amy Maxmen, writing for the Nature News Blog:

What better birthplace for an institute of urban science than a soot-stained edifice in downtown Brooklyn. New York City Mayor Bloomberg announced yesterday that the mainly vacant building will house a world class research institute, to be led by theoretical physicist Steven Koonin, former undersecretary for science at the US Department of Energy. 

At the upcoming Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP), researchers will crunch data on aspects of the city in order to solve problems related to energy and healthcare among others. Koonin says urban science means “understanding and modeling the city as a totality — its system of systems, its infrastructure, its condition and its operation.”

Africa’s urban quandary

Ethiopian market

I’ve heard the statistics so often they’re almost cliché: Fifty percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and by 2050 it will be 70 percent. Yet those numbers fail to capture the enormity of the change, especially so for those of us in the developed world where for decades the majority of the population has lived in cities.

Urban growth is going to be especially taxing in Africa, where the population is expected to more than double by 2050 and urban populations are expected to triple. Furthermore, 70 percent of the urban population growth is predicted to occur in cities with less than 500,000 people today.

Such a demographic shift is occurring today in China, but the situation there is different than in Africa. China’s semi-command economy and authoritarian government make managing mass migrations easier. Furthermore, the Asian nation is two times bigger than Africa’s two largest nations—Algeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—combined. Planning on that scale has its advantages.

China’s and Africa’s circumstances aren’t entirely dissimilar, though. China’s expanding cities have displaced farmers on the periphery, leading to protests. Social strife in African nations is similarly problematic. Take the example of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Researchers from Tattori University in Japan and Mekelle University in Ethiopia mapped the city’s expansion from 1957 to 2009 and found that Bahir Dar’s area expanded 31 percent annually, or 88 hectares (217 acres) per year. That’s a shockingly rapid pace, even outpacing some of China’s cities.

It also portends social strife. The researchers interviewed 271 of the nearly 2,900 households whose farms had been seized between 2004 and 2009 to make way urban development. What they heard paints a gloomy picture. First the good news: Nearly all were offered and received monetary compensation. Now the bad: Nearly all of those who had received compensation said it wasn’t nearly enough to replace what they had lost. One farmer’s response explained the shortfall in a nutshell: “I had 300 eucalyptus trees, 45 coffee trees, ten mangos and avocados, and ten papayas on my land, but finally I received compensation only for the farmland.”

Even if monetary compensation were sufficient, it wouldn’t be what expropriated farmers need to transition to urban life. Nearly 60 percent of the surveyed households let their money sit in the bank—they hadn’t a clue what to do with it. “It would have been better to change the money into other assets. But to do this, I do not have experience and knowledge since I am illiterate,” one respondent said. A few were given other opportunities—40 percent were offered a line of credit and 24 percent were offered some sort of training. But those promises were often reneged.

The loss of farms isn’t just a tragedy for the affected families—residents of Bahir Dar will feel the effects, too. Though African cities are entering global food markets, many people still rely on outlying farms. And as cities expand, many of those farms disappear. That means crops have to be trucked greater distances, increasing food prices and further sensitizing them to rising oil prices. People in developing nations already pay a greater proportion of their income on food than those of us in developed nations. Any increases in food prices can be calamitous, as we saw in 2007 and 2008.

It doesn’t look like there is relief in sight, either. In Bahir Dar’s case, the researchers predict the city will double in extent by 2024. Similar patterns are likely to be seen across Africa as many cities will double in population by that date. As in developed countries, part of the solution will be better education and training for the displaced and newly immigrated. But given the projected magnitude of urban growth in Africa, even that may not be enough.


Haregeweyn, N., Fikadu, G., Tsunekawa, A., Tsubo, M., & Meshesha, D. (2012). The dynamics of urban expansion and its impacts on land use/land cover change and small-scale farmers living near the urban fringe: A case study of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia Landscape and Urban Planning DOI: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2012.02.016

Photo by Marc Veraart.

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Spare or share? Farm practices and the future of biodiversity

Salvaging disturbed forests may not save biodiversity

Why don't conservative cities walk?

Will Oremus, writing for Slate’s Moneybox:

New York, San Francisco, and Boston, the top three major cities on, are three of the most liberal cities in the country. In fact, the top 19 are all in states that voted for Obama in 2008. The lowest-scoring major cities, by comparison, tilt conservative: Three of the bottom four—Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth—went for McCain. What explains the correlation? Don’t conservatives like to walk?

Via Amos Zeeberg.

Wal-Mart bribed Mexican officials to speed store construction

David Barstow, reporting for the New York Times:

In September 2005, a senior Wal-Mart lawyer received an alarming e-mail from a former executive at the company’s largest foreign subsidiary, Wal-Mart de Mexico. In the e-mail and follow-up conversations, the former executive described how Wal-Mart de Mexico had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance. In its rush to build stores, he said, the company had paid bribes to obtain permits in virtually every corner of the country.

It’s a lengthy, fascinating, and thoroughly-reported exposé on how Wal-Mart executives paid off local politicians and planning officials and then obstructed an internal investigation. The illegal bribes were effective: Today, one in five Wal-Mart stores are in Mexico.


Georgia plans instant city on Black Sea

Ellen Barry, reporting for the New York Times:

The headlong pace of new construction in Georgia has not allowed for public debate over the projects’ financing, environmental impact or merit. Despite queries raised on all of these scores, Lazika’s first building — a futuristic Public Service Hall for the new city — is already under construction, and due to open in September. Ten years from now, President Mikheil Saakashvili has said, Lazika will be Georgia’s second-largest city after Tbilisi, which has a population of about 1.5 million, and a leading Black Sea trading hub.

All that’s missing? Migration to the region, sustained double digit economic growth, the need for a 1.5 million person city in a country of 4.5 million. Sounds like a solution in search of a problem.

Design for a water-scarce future

Sarah Rich:

More than a century after Powell challenged the government to design infrastructure and territorial boundaries in accordance with existing landscapes, the task for designers, architects, engineers and planners can no longer be only to follow some of Powell’s logic, but to find ways to undo much of the detrimental development that has occurred in the meantime.

The West faces a perilous future if it can’t find solutions to its water problem. Rich rightly steps through the basics of the West’s hydrologic history—without context, you can’t understand the current situation.

For those who haven’t lived in the West, water is probably a bigger deal than you might imagine. I know I was shocked at just how dry the Bay Area can be—and how reliant it is on water from the Sierra Nevadas. If you want a taste for how water has and continues to shape the West, read Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. A friend of mine loaned it to me just before I left Minnesota, saying, “It should be required reading for anyone moving out West.” I couldn’t agree more.

It wasn't your imagination, cont.

First there was numerical evidence of North America’s early spring this year, now there’s geographic proof. NASA’s MODIS sensor snapped this shot centered on the Appalachians showing what one expert called an “exceptionally early” greening.

March 2012 greening in the Appalachians

And if that and the numbers weren’t enough, here’s further pictorial evidence of March’s anomalous temperatures.

March 2012 temperature anomalies

The last settler’s syndrome

Log cabin

In my mind, my hometown will always be a city of 24,000 people. It’ll also be supported by three major manufacturing companies. And it’ll always have a certain, intangible something. Of course, today West Bend has 5,000 more residents despite the demise of all three manufacturers. And every time I return, that certain something isn’t quite the same either. It’s like waking from a dream I can’t entirely reconstruct.

Geographer Gilbert F. White would say I’ve got “last settler’s syndrome”. To me, the ideal West Bend is the city I remember from my childhood—really, from my middle school days when my friends and I explored every street in the city by bike. White would also say I’m not alone: “Each wants his particular town and country landscape to remain just as it was when he or she arrived. The most recent settler wants to be the last settler.”

One could argue that the settlement of the United States was driven in part by last settler’s syndrome, that the pioneer spirit is just a euphemism for the malady. Pioneers who saw their wilderness fill up with other settlers may have become disillusioned. The Ohio River Valley, for example, wasn’t the same after the first trees were felled. So people picked up and moved on. It instilled a distinctly American habit—moving west for new opportunities.¹ My own ancestors followed that well-worn path, moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in the late 1800s.

Seemingly everything in our lives is touched by the last settler’s syndrome, from our childhood homes to our neighborhoods to our favorite haunts. It can be a powerful, positive force—if John Muir hadn’t been afflicted by last settler’s syndrome, there probably wouldn’t be a Yosemite National Park. But last settler’s syndrome also can be problematic. Neighborhood quarrels can result when new transplants push for change. And while obstinacy can be good in some cases—Muir and Yosemite—it also can be a barrier.

Understanding the last settler’s syndrome—how it affects people, and more importantly, how it affects ourselves—can help us better understand where we live, whether that be cities, farms, or forests. It also can help explain why change is so accelerated these days: We’re a population that moves a lot. As of 2010, less than 60 percent of Americans lived in the state in which they were born, almost 30 percent were born in another state, and almost 13 percent were born in another country. How people defined “the way things were” used to evolve over generations. Today it’s on the order of years.

In an era of constant upheaval—where cities look nothing like they did a few years ago, let alone a few decades ago—we need to consciously disassemble our relationship with places and analyze them in parts. What should we keep? What should we change? What needs to change? It’s difficult to abandon the past, but the future will be nothing like we imagine. Things are going to change whether we like it or not.

  1. Why else is California so populous? I kid, I kid. Or do I?


Nielsen, J. M., Shelby, B., & Haas, J. E. (1977). Sociological carrying capacity and the last settler syndrome Pacific Sociological Review, 20 (4), 568-581

U.S. Census. 2011. Lifetime Mobility in the United States: 2010.

White, Gilbert F. 1986. The Last Settler’s Syndrome. in Geography, Resources, and Environment: Volume 1. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, eds. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Photo by anoldent.

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The woods that were

Where the tallest trees live

Global forest heights

Lidar is an amazing technology. By pulsing a laser dozens to hundreds of thousands of times per second and recording the reflected light, Lidar sensors can construct striking 3D models of everything from buildings to river valleys to forest canopies. It also what makes self-driving cars possible.

The map above was created using Lidar from NASA’s ICESAT satellite and the Shuttle Radar Topography mission. It’s the second of it’s kind, the first of which was made by Michael Lefsky at Colorado State. I remember hearing Lefsky talk at a small Lidar conference in 2005 about the challenges of using space-based Lidar to map forest canopies worldwide. Despite the problems, he was sold on the technology. I can see why.

Why trees matter

Jim Robbins, writing in today’s New York Times:

We have underestimated the importance of trees. They are not merely pleasant sources of shade but a potentially major answer to some of our most pressing environmental problems. We take them for granted, but they are a near miracle. In a bit of natural alchemy called photosynthesis, for example, trees turn one of the seemingly most insubstantial things of all — sunlight — into food for insects, wildlife and people, and use it to create shade, beauty and wood for fuel, furniture and homes.

But wait, there’s more…

The Caprivi Strip

Caprivi Strip

The Caprivi Strip is a small finger of Namibia that reaches eastward to the Zambezi River. It’s a geographic oddity that came to being in the colonial era—in 1890, Germany and the United Kingdom swapped land claims, with Germany receiving access to the Zambezi. They had hopes of connecting Namibia with their colony to the east, now known as Tanzania. Unfortunately for the Germans, the Zambezi was unnavigable. Their plan to connecting the two colonies died, but the Caprivi Strip remains part of Namibia to this day.

The Strip’s other curiosity are the bands of vegetation seen above. They stretch for hundreds of kilometers and cover dunes that formed between 20,000 and 60,000 years ago. According to NASA, this area was a desert then and has undergone a sort of de-desertification.

Between the its convoluted geopolitical and climatological histories, the Caprivi Strip is a ghost of geography in many senses of the term.