Suburbia- No place for RVs?

Today, the Tribune covers a debate going on in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake where the city is proposing a ban on parking recreational vehicles and boats outside in residential districts.

The debate typifies two often incompatible trends seen in American suburbia:  the desire for a safe, conforming landscape on the one hand, and the desire for individual freedom, on the other.

Proponents of the ban argue that RV’s and boats detract from the aesthetics of suburban residential neighborhoods (and property values) while opponents feel that they should have the right to store their vehicles on their own property.

Generally in these disputes the “property values” contingent trumps other interests.

Housing, Pollution, and Sprawl

There are two interesting stories in today’s national press relating to some of the under-reported aspects of contemporary suburbanization.

In the Washington Post, Michael Grunwald has an article on how issues of affordable housing are being increasingly felt in the suburbs. One of the advantages of post-World War Two suburbanization has been a marked increase in relatively affordable housing–albeit highly subsidized by the federal government. As scholars such as Kenneth Jackson have argued, federal government policies related to mortgage insurance, highway construction, and various tax deductions have been historicaly skewed towards suburban development at the expense of inner-city investment.

Over the past decade or so there has been a historic housing boom nationwide. The combination of low interest rates, inexpensive land acquisition at the exurban fringes of major metropolitan areas, and a continuation of the aforementioned subsidies have all contributed to this boom. Simultaneously there has been a demonstrated renaissance in various urban neighborhoods that has resulted in gentrification schemes that have pushed many low-income earners out of what were largely working-class neighborhoods. In Chicago, neighborhoods like Pilsen, Wicker Park, and Ukrainian Village are examples of this trend.

These pressures are coupled with a general stagnation of wages for many in the middle- and lower-middle classes. Add to this mix high fuel prices and the fact that many of the mortgages that fueled the housing boom have adjustible-rate products that are now starting to rise significantly, and we see that suburbia is now having to grapple with issues of affordability. As Grunwald’s article illustrates, increasing numbers of people are paying more than 30% of their income–the traditional measure of affordability. In practical terms, many people are now having to travel many miles to find pockets of affordability.
These increasing commutes are taking place in a context that is deficient in mass transit. With more and more people commuting long distances in suburbia, air quality inevitably suffers in many locales. In the Central Valley of California, officials have sought to take a novel approach to dealing with this effect. As today’s New York Times reports, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District is requiring developers to pay a pollution mitigation fee for developments that exacerbate low-density sprawl.

It’s not surprising that developers are taking the district to court to overturn the tax, but it does represent an interesting attempt at getting pollution-generating projects to pay their social impact.

Neighborhood Change and Urban Identity

This week’s announcement by Bon-Ton Stores that they will be closing the State Street location of Carson Pirie Scott is the latest in a series of well-publicized changes downtown Chicago’s retail landscape. Late last year their State Street neighbor, Marshall Field’s, was swallowed up by Federated Department Stores in a large merger of the country’s two top department store conglomerates. In an effort to streamline advertising and branding costs, Federated announced that the all of the regional chains acquired in the merger–including Field’s–would adopt the Macy’s brand.

From the perspective of urban development, the reaction to these changes is interesting. There was vocal opposition to the Field’s name change, including a petition drive and an impending protest on 9 September when the name change becomes permanent. The reaction to Carsons has been less dramatic–perhaps due to the fact that opposition to the Field’s transition was largely ineffectal.

One of the themes that continues to emerge in local news stories about these changes on State Street was how many people expressed nostalgia and regret that the neighborhood is changing. The Tribune today has an interesting article that briefly reviews the history of State Street as the regional shopping mecca going back more than a century.

State Street has figured prominently in the city’s identity over the years, being memorialized in the 1922 Fred Fisher song made famous by Frank Sinatra, “Chicago,” wherein State Street is referred to as that “Great Street” where “they do things they don’t do on Broadway.” Fisher never clearly discloses what these “things” are–although later in the song he recounts how he “saw a man and he danced with his wife”–but clearly the attempt here is to seek pride in the Chicago’s status as the “Second City.”

As post-War suburbanization commenced in the Chicago region during 1950s, State Street suffered. The big downtown stores–including Carson’s and Fields–set up operations in the big regional shopping malls that were being constructed in suburbia. These new malls, often located in proximity to the new interstate highways, offered the old downtown shopping opportunities in suburban settings closer to the burgeoning middle classes who were fleeing the city in droves.

State Street suffered accordingly and in the late 1970s, the city tried to replicate the mall atmposphere by shutting the street down to private automobile traffic. This idea failed since the street couldn’t really turn into a pedestrian mall becase there was still CTA bus and taxi traffic. The result was a dead zone of very little street life. The city re-opened State Street to all vehicular traffic in 1996 which coincided with the development of more residential properties in the neighborhood. Much of the downtown shopping migrated a mile or so north to the North Michigan Avenue district.

State Street has blossomed into a very different type of neighborhood than it was–which offers a great example of the dynamism of urban spaces. With DePaul’s renovation of the old Goldblatt’s department store building into classroom space, the opening of the University Center dormotory, and the Harold Washington Library serving as anchors, the neighborhood is taking on an eclectic character, merging residential, commercial, and civic functions into a different type of urban space.

Neighborhood change, however, often conflicts with peoples’ preconceptions about the place. This is especially the case when old and prominent institutions leave or change their fundamental character. Interestingly, an article in today’s New York Times profiles Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Federated and the force behind changing Fields into the Macy’s brand. The article largely gives Lundgren positive marks for smoothing over the reaction against consolidating regional stores under the Macy’s name. One anecdote recounted in the story is telling:

To prove the point, Mr. Lundgren tells a story. Soon after Federated disclosed that Marshall Field’s, an upscale Midwest department store, would lose its name, scores of shoppers wrote blistering letters to the company, with several threatening to cut up their Field’s charge cards.

Worried that the reaction might be widespread and hurt the chain’s sales, Mr. Lundgren asked the accounting department to pull the purchase records of the first 100 letter writers. “There was no activity,” he said. “Or incredibly little activity.”

“This is where the tension was coming from,” he continued. “There was a group of people who did not want a change. But do they like the merchandise in the store? Not according to their spending. In their letters, they talked about when they were a child. But nobody was talking in the present tense.”

This reveals the reality of the tensions between people’s identity with a prominent landmark occupying urban space and the reality of corporate interests in a period of increasing consolidation in many industries–inculding retail. Both Field’s and Carson’s have long-ago been acquired by businesses with no measurable ties to the city and are facing increasing pressure by stockholders to maintain competitiveness. These recent decisions show that the ultimate decisions made by these companies are designed with these isolated corporate interests in mind. In fact on the same day that Bon-Ton announced the closure of the State Street Carson’s, their second quarter earnings report was released which failed to meet Wall Street expectations.
Of course, no one expects coporations to engage in activity that is at odds with their bottom line; however, private interests invariably have effects on public spaces. The inevitible tension that results provides the substance of much social and political interest.

Debate Over "Organics"

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting story on the debate over what constitutes “organic” milk. In recent years a substantial market has emerged for organic foods as consumers fear the environmental and health impacts of factory farming. Most of the food produced in conventional, “factory” envrionments rely on significant inputs in an effort to maximize yields. These inputs include petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and various antibiotics and hormones for livestock.

Organics, on the other hand, are often thought to be produced with minimal synthetic inputs in a more “natural” process. As the demand for organics has grown, so has the interest of large agri-business and grocery store chains.

The article in the Tribune documents the Horizon dairy brand–owned by Dean Foods–and how they barely walk the line in conforming to USDA organic guidelines. The example of Horizion shows some of the challenges involved in regulating organic production. Prior to the USDA developing guidelines on what constituted “organic” production, the industry was largely self-regulating, meaning that marketers could promote products as “organic” without spelling out what was meant by the term.

Environmentalists and small organic farmers sought the regulations which came into effect in the early 2000s. With defined regulations, however, companies like Horizon can meet the letter of the regulations without honoring the spirit of the environmental aspects of organic production.

Michael Pollan has explored the tensions of the organics movement quite well in his numerous books and articles–many of which are available on his website.

Climate Change and Kyoto's Shortcomings

In recent days there have been interesting opinion pieces by prominent commentators about climate change and the international regimes developed to restrict human-generated carbon emissions.

The most prominent international treaty dealing with climate change is the Kyoto Protocol, which requires industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5% of 1990 levels by 2012. So-called “developing countries,” like India and China signed the treaty, but were exempt from legally-binding reduction targets. Developing countries were encouraged to participate in reducing carbon emissions through the Clean Development Mechanism which allows industrialized countries to get credits for meeting their own reduction targets by funding mitigation projects in the developing world.

The main shortcoming of Kyoto is the fact that the largest polluter, the United States, has failed to ratify the treaty. President George W. Bush has cited the fact that China and India are not obligated to reduce emissions as a reason for opposing the treaty. The developing countries suggested that it would not be fair to demand reductions in their emissions since developed countries reaped the benefits of 150 years of massive pollution and, furthermore, the developing countries do not have the resources needed to make the change to more efficient technologies.
Earlier this week, the Financial Times published an editorial by Columbia University economist, Jagdish Bhagwati, explaining that the Kyoto Protocol’s “fatal flaw” was the exemption for reducing emissions on the part of India and China. To induce the United States to support multilateral agreements on climate change, Bhagwati proposes that industrialized countries contribue into a fund that would pay for mitigation in the developing world as well as initiate a tax on all CO2 emissions worldwide. The revenues generated would likewise go into mitigation efforts. The tax would also provide incentives for voluntary efficiency measures to be undertaken.

In today’s Washington Post, University of Chicago Law School professor, Cass Sunstein similarly blames Kyoto’s shortcomings on the exemptions given to emerging industrial nations like China. He argues that agreements to address global climate change need support from China and the United States. Although he does mischaracterize China as having “refused to participate in any international agreement to control climate change,” given the fact that both countries have significant levels of emissions and little in the way of binding reduction plans, it does seem reasonable to find a way to get these two countries to participate in global efforts to reduce emissions.

Unlike Bhagwati, Sunstein does not offer much in the way of a solution. He argues that both China and the United States are less affected by climate change than other countries and, therefore, less likely to find that it is in their self-interest to change behavior.

His argument seems to ignore the reality of the global connections that form the foundation of economic and political realities in both countries. Countries in more extreme geographic locations may suffer more dramatic consequences than the US or China–although this is debatable–but climatic insecurities can create political and economic insecurities in these countries which the US or China may rely upon as export or import markets.

Furthermore, lumping China and the United States together as the main culprits of global climate change ignores the fact that there is a great disparity between the two countries in per capita emissions. The US has per capita rates of CO2 emissions at almost 20 metric tons per annum while China’s rates are in the neighborhood of 3 metric tons per annum.

These disparities bring up extremely difficult questions relating to ethics which can only be resolved through multilateral discussions. Given the fact that the United States, in particular, has generally been resistent to multilateralism over the past six years, it remains uncertain how climate change can be effectively confronted.

Alternative Fuels, continued

With oil prices above $70 a barrel and global supplies concentrated in a relatively small number of countries it should not be surprising that countries without secure domestic supplies of oil continue to search for alternatives.

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on the South African company, Sasol Ltd, which has emerged as the global leader in developing coal-to-oil technology. During the 1980s when international sanctions against the former apartheid reigme made it difficult for the country to import oil, Sasol was given significant amounts of government subsidies to develop technology to convert coal into a liquified form that could be used as a petroleum substitute.

With the global oil regime in a state of increasing demand and political insecurity, many coal-rich countries, like China and the United States are looking to Sasol and coal-to-oil technology to reduce their dependence on foreign oil.

From a sustainability standpoint, however, this technology offers little promise in the way of reducing envrionmental impact of energy use. The process of producing the oil involves massive carbon emissions and the production facilities can only be viable with massive government subsidies.

As is the case with governmental policies like those discussed previously relating to liquid petroleum gas and ethanol, the push for coal-to-oil technology fails to adequately take into account all of the ecological and economic costs of our high levels of fossil fuel consumption.

It is interesting to note the inconsistencies of politicians like our junior senator from Illinois, Barak Obama, who has given recent speeches claiming that “the issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our own peril” while simultaneously co-sponsoring Senate Bill 3325, which would give millions of dollars to the coal industry to develop a technology that would increase carbon emissions. It is no wonder that Obama earned praise from the head of the major mining industry lobby!

Alternative Energy Policy Australia-Style

As I mentioned last week, the issue of rising fuel prices is a cause for concern for many politicians.

Australia, like the United States, is a large importer of petroleum and depends on these imports to sustain a highly consumptive, automobile-dependent, energy regime.

Unlike the United States, Australia has been pushing the use of liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as an alternative, culminating in an announcement by Prime Minister John Howard last week to provide a $2000 (Au.) subsidy to consumers who convert their car to accept the fuel.

From a sustainability perspective, there are numerous problems with relying on LPGs as a staple for energy policy.  First, LPGs are derivitive from butane and propane produced during oil and natural gas extraction.  As such, they don’t offer an alternative to fossil fuels–rather another form.

Similarly, the fuel burns cleaner than conventional petrol, but still produces the same amount of carbon emissions, doing nothing to the pressing problem of climate change.

This subsidy seems less an attempt to engage in a more environmentally sustainable energy policy than a way to bolster political support.

Planned Communities and Housing Discrimination

The New York Times has a short article in today’s Magazine on the proliferation of “active adult communities” in the United States.

As baby boomers reach retirement there has been an ensuing proliferation of planned communities that forbid people younger than 18 from being residents. This emergent demographic, being relatively affluent, has been vigorously courted by real estate developers and municipalities.

In keeping with the increasing spatial segmentation of people and residence based on particular demographic factors, developers have responded to the market demands by offering spaces free from the perceived nuisances that accompany children and adolescents. These developments–like the Sun City and Villages franchises–are replete with swimming pools, golf courses, and other recreational facilities whose peacefulness is ensured by restricting the types of residents.

The article explores some of the problems with this precedent. Particularly troubling is how age-restrictive communities violate the spirit of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Prior to 1968, discrimination on the basis of age, race, familial status, religion, and ethnicity was widespread and had particularly nefarious effects for minority groups.

Municipalities generally like having age-restrictive communities since seniors utilize fewer expensive public services such as education. However, once baby boomers begin to die off, the next demographic wave will not have as many retired persons to fill these age-restrictive communities. The result could be declining property values as supply exceeds demand.

From the standpoint of urbanism, the trend of segmentation evidenced by these age-restrictive communities continues a trend criticized by the late Jane Jacobs whereby our new suburban spaces lose their vitality as they tend to be ever-more homogenous.

Energy Policy and Alternative Fuels

When President Bush asserted that the United States was “addicted to oil” in his most recent State of the Union speech, it took many by surprise.  Given the fact that he was a former oil company executive, had close ties to the energy industry, and essentially ignored energy policy during the first term of his presidency, it was notable that he would frame the policy issue in the lexicon of “addiciton”–a characterization more in line with environmental critics.

Today, the Wall Street Journal discusses the status of Bush’s energy policymaking more than 6 months later.  In the weeks after his State of the Union remarks, Bush trumpeted the possibility of the bio-fuel, ethanol, as being an alternative to oil.  The article does a good job dicussing the numerous challenges in such an approach: lagging distribution systems, and the relative poor efficiency of ethanol as compared to gasoline.  There are other challenges, as well, with ethanol, particularly the large governmental subsidies that currently go to agribusinesses that produce the base material for the fuel.

Similarly, there is a crucial contradiction relating to ethanol in our national energy policy: if it is such an attractive replacement, why do we continue to levy tariffs on imports from our allies and trading partners who want to export the fuel to the United States?

The New York Times has a story today on the social impact of current energy policies that serves as a good companion to the WSJ piece.  The article discusses how people are coping with rising gas prices.  Generally when prices rise for a good, it is expected that demand drops.  A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that people lower income groups have reported changing their behavior in the face of rising gas prices by carpooling, making fewer trips, taking public transit, etc..  But, overall, there has been a rise in consumption.

This suggests that individuals and businesses that are more prosperous may be in a better position to withstand price fluctuations.  It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the wake of the closure of BP’s Prudhoe Bay pipeline which will decrease the amount of domestic oil produced in Alaska.

Animals in the Suburbs

When city zoning became formalized in North America during the first decades of the twentieth century, one of the first things many cities and suburbs began to regulate was the presence of livestock and farm animals.

While animals have been part of the urban landscape for centuries, aesthetic and health concerns accompanying industrialization caused cities to question the advantages of hosting certain types of animals. Livestock had provided urban dwellers with important nutritional supplements but with industrialization, the argument went, people no longer had to rely on their own husbandry for protien. They could simply buy their food in markets.

Recently, however, people are beginning to question the wisdom of these zoning codes–although, not without intense political argument.

The Chicago Tribune reports today about a battle brewing in the exclusive suburb of Lake Forest pitting the ex-wife of the heir to the Walgreens drugstore chain against her neighbors. Estelle Walgreen apparently is fond of pot-bellied pigs and keeps several as pets over the objection of her neighbors. The article implies that Lake Forest has an ordinance prohibiting farm animals, but Walgreen did not feel that it applied to her pot-bellied since they are pets–not meat. The city council did not buy her argument and has voted to have them removed.

Evanston is also in the midst of a controversy on the appropriateness of beekeeping in the suburb. In this case a teenager developed an interest in apiculture and installed a honeybee hive over neighbors’ objections. The city has an ordinance relating to animals–but not insects. After several weeks of debate, the city is still weighing its options.

Evanston may be more sympathetic to urban beekeeping as there has been a significant trend in recent years to encourage ecologically-friendly activities in urban and suburban settings and Evanston has recently adopted a strategic plan that encompasses sustainability.

The outcome of the bee controversy may be an indicator of the city’s committment to sustainable policies.