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Commie Skin Jobs

Fri, 07/29/2016 - 22:38

This is Riga, Latvia. The Baltic Republics had a particularly difficult time during the twentieth century with Nazi Germany invading in 1941 and Soviet Russia occupying them until 1991. What had been a prosperous group of small Scandinavian style countries became relatively impoverished and isolated.

This is Riga, Latvia. The Baltic Republics had a particularly difficult time during the twentieth century with Nazi Germany invading in 1941 and Soviet Russia occupying them until 1991. What had been a prosperous group of small Scandinavian style countries became relatively impoverished and isolated.

This is nothing new. The Baltic has been repeatedly dominated by larger nations since the 1200’s. Riga is equidistant from both Berlin and Moscow. It’s a rough neighborhood and it seems likely there will be more such impositions in the future. The region is too important to left alone. But the people will adapt as they always have.

Between the various wars and occupations when the country was allowed to flourish on its own Latvia proved to be industrious and highly cultured. The buildings that survived the tumults of history attest to the quality of the people, economy, and place.

It was a matter of national pride for the Latvian people to completely restore the historic core of Riga after the Soviets left things in Havana style dishevelment. This is their homeland and the repository of their culture, language, music, and history. It was also an excellent business model. The city is a dynamic and highly profitable venue for foreign investment, trade, and tourism. Every inch of the old city is productive.

But then there’s all that left over communist stuff ringing the city. What exactly do you do with it all? Pulling it down and replacing it is too expensive. And many of these buildings are occupied by ethnic Russians not Latvians. (Latvia is a quarter Russian as a result of the Soviet occupation, but the city of Riga is closer to half Russian.)

This was top down bureaucratic central planning at its finest. Residential buildings were isolated from industry and from each other for health and safety. Operating a business of any kind in these apartment buildings was strictly forbidden. Tightly regulated shops were provided at convenient but segregated locations. Highly consolidated schools and isolated office and manufacturing parks were constructed in their own little pods at some distance.

The preservation of green open space was a hallmark of Soviet design. Grass and trees were necessary for recreation, health, and social tranquility. There’s also a coincidental side effect of this kind of land use planning that worked in favor of central authority. Where exactly would people organize a protest rally in this environment? There is no prominent central square or iconic rallying point. What exactly would the rebel cry be here? Rise up and storm the shrubbery!

Honestly it’s not that different from American suburbia. Communists just preferred concrete tower blocks to wood framed tract homes. If you’ve ever been inside an original 1947 Levittown house then you’ve essentially been inside one of these Soviet apartments. I spent a chunk of my childhood in a beige stucco apartment in Los Angeles that was nearly identical on the inside. The kitchens are small, there’s only one bath, the ceilings are low, there’s no craft or workmanship in the architecture. It’s utilitarian. It’s not terrible. People can and do live perfectly comfortable lives in these places. It’s just bland and there’s never anything to do in the neighborhood. It’s the precise opposite of the historic city center. No tourist ever ventures out to this part of town and you’ll never see photos of these neighborhoods in brochures.

So here’s what the pragmatic Latvians are doing. First, these inherited communist buildings are given a quick skin job. They’re scrubbed clean, fitted with new cupboards and fixtures, painted, given new windows and doors, and generally made to feel fresh. If you squint these buildings look like the lesser offerings of 1960s Sweden or Germany. There are worse places to live in the world. A tidy apartment in a boring suburb of Riga is what some people genuinely prefer. There’s plenty on offer here for them. And there isn’t much else that can be done with these places.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

Ireland Adopts Plan to Increase Housing Supply and Improve Housing Affordability

Thu, 07/28/2016 - 22:38

The government of Ireland has adopted a new policy (Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness) intended to improve the quality of life and the national economy by making housing more affordable. In this regard, Ireland joins New Zealand (and Florida) in having recognized the disadvantages of overpriced housing and signaling reforms to alleviate the problem.

Background: The Great Recession in Ireland

Probably no nation suffered more during the housing bust induced Great Recession than Ireland. By 2007, the Irish economy had reached its peak, having achieved a gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, purchasing power adjusted, only 2.8 percent below that of the United States. This was an incredible accomplishment, given that as late as 1990 Ireland's GDP per capita was approximately 45 percent below that of the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Spain, which are shown on Figure 1.  .

However, as the overheated housing market tanked, Ireland's GDP per capita dropped 8.4 percent relative to that of the United States, despite own housing bust economic losses. Things were so bad that Ireland was forced to take a large loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to help stabilize its economy.

Ireland's economic losses were even greater than that of Spain, which had a particularly severe housing bust and whose economy continues to languish. But Ireland has done much better. The EU loan has been repaid. According to World Bank data, Ireland has reached a new peak, reaching within 2.1 percent of the US GDP per capita (Figure 1).

The Housing Bubble and Bust

During the housing bubble,   Dublin and Cork became severely unaffordable, where the median multiples (median house price divided by median household income) reached 6.0 and 5.4, respectively. This was to be expected as demand increased, well beyond the supply permitted by Ireland's urban containment land-use regulations. As Dublin economist Colm McCarthy of  University College, put it: "Ireland passed its first major piece of land-use planning legislation in 1963, modeled on the UK's Town and Country Planning Act of 1947. The intentions were laudable, to restrict the construction of unwelcome developments and to empower local authorities to take a more active role in shaping the built environment. There was no desire to screw up the residential housing market, but that is eventually what happened."

As the economy get began to recover, house prices again began their rise simply because the reforms in   that would have prevented it were not implemented.

Rebuilding Ireland

The new housing policy announced July 20  is comprehensive, with strategies to reduce homelessness, improve the rental market and supply sufficient owned housing at affordable prices. Ireland has a high homeownership rate, at 68.6 percent and is important to the national economy.

As has occurred in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and some markets in Canada and the United States, large  house price increases relative to incomes were   experienced where urban containment policies were in effect. This is because urban fringe development prohibitions are associated with higher land prices inside urban containment boundaries (Figure 2). Indeed, this type of urban fringe regulation is present in virtually all major markets rated as severely unaffordable in the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, which rates 87 such markets in nine nations.

Rebuilding Ireland policy acknowledges the importance of the housing market the national economy. As has been typical under urban containment planning regimes, house construction has fallen significantly short of demand. Under this policy, the government intends to accelerate the release of land for new development, especially in making government owned land available for development.

Rebuilding Ireland is intended to double the rate of home building in Ireland over the period of 2017 to 2021. This will be aided by "Opening up land supply and low-cost State lands." This is important not only to meet the needs of Irish households, but also to diminish the potential for a highly volatile housing market that led to Ireland's financial distress in the Great Recession.

The government also intends to take action to support infrastructure development for new housing projects. A €200 million "Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund" will assist in "enabling infrastructure that opens up large sites for early development."

As in California, virtually all large new housing projects today are appealed on various grounds. In recognition of this, Ireland intends to speed up the development process by allowing larger developments to proceed directly to the national planning appeals board ("An Bord Pleanála") for approval. The intention is to "jumpstart" the development of new housing.

Defining Affordability

Unlike most governments, the government of Ireland has supplied a definition of housing affordability. Rebuilding Ireland will hold a competition to develop new housing that can be delivered for than €200,000 in construction costs.

Rebuilding Ireland also notes that land costs must be kept affordable and should add no more than €30,000 to €50,000 to the price of a new home. This would result in a "development ratio" of 15 percent to 20 percent (land price divided by total price including land). This development ratio is similar to US development ratios where urban containment policy has not been implemented and similar to development ratios in Australia and New Zealand before urban containment policy was adopted across those nations.

Moreover, based on Irish household incomes, housing that costs between €230,000 and €250,000 would be generally consistent with the median multiple of 3.0 or less that is rated by the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey as affordable (new house prices are generally more expensive than those of existing housing).


The government is signaling the seriousness of its intentions, indicating that local authorities must strive in their statutory development plans for “affordable prices to meet the housing needs of each local authority area, across tenures and types as well as the social housing requirement."

This is a unique requirement in view of the fact that there has been virtually no serious attention to the issue of delivering housing affordability in other markets that have had strong urban containment policies.

Implementation will not be without challenges. In the longer run, the inertia of currently in vogue planning philosophy could well prevent achievement of the housing affordability goals of Rebuilding Ireland. Yet, as Rebuilding Ireland indicates, the stakes are high. Rebuilding Ireland notes that "Excessive housing costs have demographic impacts, including a tendency for households to defer important lifecycle choices in order to prioritise home purchase" (such as having children).

Further, as Rebuilding Ireland indicates: "Rising prices for residential accommodation impact adversely on competitiveness. The attractiveness of Ireland as a potential investment location and, of course, the cost base for existing businesses will be impaired should price inflation continue, as rising prices place upward pressure on wages, deter inward migration and impede the labour market."

This could be particularly important in light of Brexit (the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union). To the extent that international businesses may decide to leave the United Kingdom to stay within the European Union, Ireland and especially Dublin could be attractive for relocation because of the dominance in the nation of the English language, which would be made more attractive by improved housing affordability.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international pubilc policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photo: Custom House, Dublin by Peter Brown from Dublin, Ireland (The Custom House, Dublin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

UberPool & LyftLine: How the New Carpools Will Change Travel

Thu, 07/28/2016 - 05:35

How will new carpool options like LyftLine and UberPool affect the marketplace of transit services? When mobility conversations turn to Lyft, Uber and other ridesourcing — or ridesharing — companies, the discussion typically centers on their effects on the taxicab business. Here in Chicago, Lyft and Uber recently survived a turbo-charged regulatory battle with cabbies that could have forced them to entirely withdraw from our city.

Ridesharing carpools add a new dimension to the extraordinary rise of these companies. Many users have not until recently begun experimenting with carpooling options, but by all indications their popularity is accelerating. Both LyftLine and UberPool were unveiled in summer of 2014, and then rolled out gradually.

To use LyftLine or UberPool, a rider inputs his or her location and destination on a smartphone, which then displays two options — a traditional rate, and a discounted rate for those who choose to 'pool'. The driver of a pool may make other pickups and drop-offs. A four-mile trip on UberPool may cost around $6, whereas on UberX (the standard Uber service) it might cost $10; a taxi ride would run much higher.

In communities with lackluster public transit, carpooling fills an enormous void by giving millions without a private vehicle a new, lower cost travel option. Even in areas saturated with public transit, however, this new option promises to reshuffle how people move about.

The opportunity raises critical questions. Will significant numbers of time-sensitive travelers, including commuters, opt to use public transit less, in favor of rideshare service carpools? How much time can they expect to save? To what extent do the additional stops negate the benefits of this option, compared to using transit?

I created a controlled experiment involving 50 one-way trips between various urban locations in a transit-rich part of Chicago. Data collectors measured the differing costs, time, and conveniences associated with UberPool, trains, and buses. One person used Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) services while the other hailed an UberPool (Figure 1).

We evaluated only weekday trips during daytime hours to and from the north and northwest sides of the city, in order to focus on a transit-rich environment. Our trips, which linked the centroids of community areas, averaged about six miles long.

UberPool did not disappoint. Regardless of the type of trip involved, our study found that carpooling tended to get you there faster than public transit, although often not by enough for to justify — for many passengers — the cost difference. The average elapsed time for all UberPool trips was about 36 minutes, besting transit by about 12 minutes. UberPool was faster on 39 trips, while the CTA was faster on 11 (Table 1). The carpooling costs averaged $9.66, compared to transit’s $2.29.

Stops to pick up other passengers were not as prevalent as many might expect, with UberPool trips averaging just under one extra stop. Still, one fifth of all trips made at least two extra stops, while two out of the 50 trips involved three extra stops

The appeal of carpooling may depend on the type of travel involved. On downtown-oriented trips, the time savings averaged a mere six minutes. UberPool was faster on eleven of these, and the CTA on seven.

Moreover, UberPool can be challenging during rush hour, when it is slowed by traffic congestion and taking rapid transit is often faster due to the heightened schedule frequency.

We suspect that primarily people in a hurry, those carrying heavy or bulky items, or those uncomfortable with transit would be inclined to regularly carpool to work downtown. The level of exertion is also greater on public transit. Our transit passengers were unable to find seats on about one-fifth of trips, and walked more often. UberPool involves minimal walking, whereas the average transit trip involved about a half-mile trek. Eleven transit trips required passengers to hoof it for at least two-thirds of a mile, while three involved doing so for more than a mile.

On trips from the peripheral 'outer downtown' to the neighborhoods, though, UberPool outpaced transit by ten minutes. Carpooling starts to look more tempting to the transit rider in this scenario.

The most dramatic benefits from carpooling, however, involve neighborhood-to-neighborhood travel (Figure 2). Such trips can be painful to transit users in Chicago, in part due to our slow pace of getting bus rapid transit off the ground and our 'legacy' rail system, with its radial design that focuses primarily on travel to and from downtown. And busses on some routes stop every few blocks.

On these trips, UberPool dominates, averaging 28 minutes per trip, almost 19 minutes faster (about 40 percent) than transit. Carpooling was more than 10 minutes faster on all but four of our 23 trips, and more than an hour faster on one.

A notable negative aspect of using UberPool is, of course, the variability in pricing. Six of the 50 trips involved 'surge' pricing (premium fares due to heavy demand), resulting in prices as much as 60 percent above the normal fare. We did not study the price and speed of UberPool during the evening and late-night hours, when demand is reportedly heaviest, and when surge pricing appears to be more prevalent.

The inescapable conclusion is that carpooling services are appealing to far more than transit-averse and extremely time-conscious travelers, although perhaps not as an option that many commuters would use daily. UberPool tends to perform best precisely where transit is at its worst, e.g., on trips between the neighborhoods, especially during the off-peak periods when traffic is lighter.

On one level, our results support the conclusions of a new Shared Use Mobility Center/American Public Transit Association report showing that such mobility innovations tend to be complementary to public transit. Shared-use services like Lyft and Uber fill the gaps that exist in urban bus and rail operations, and encourage people to pursue lifestyles that do not center on private cars.

Still, carpooling should also be regarded as a potential game-changer. Federal guidelines recommend that analysts assume the average urban traveler values time savings at $24 per hour. An average traveler on an UberPool making a neighborhood-to-neighborhood trip may, therefore, by arriving about 20 minute earlier than a transit rider, derive a benefit from carpooling of around $8 per trip, which would be a far greater amount than the extra cost. The most time-sensitive travelers and groups of travellers would derive an even higher benefit.

Even though rideshare carpools represent a mobility breakthrough, it unfortunately continues to take a backseat in the taxi-centric debate over Lyft and Uber. It is certainly going to pose an increasing challenge to public transit agencies. Heightened competition in urban transit markets appears here to stay, and is now poised to bring dramatic changes to the way we travel.

Joseph P. Schwieterman is director of the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development and Professor of Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago.

Flickr photo of the S2 smartwatch from Samsung Newsroom: Travel NYC with the Gear S2 and Uber

Lessons Learned from Long-Term Privatizations

Tue, 07/26/2016 - 22:38

Is long term privatization of government assets in the form of leases or concessions a good idea?

The answer is not Yes or No but rather What and How.

Done right, long-term privatization can be a great thing to the public. But given the multi-decade nature of some of these deals, the risk of getting it wrong is high.

My new Manhattan Institute research paper The Lessons of Long-Term Privatizations: Why Chicago Got It Wrong and Indiana Got It Right looks at two privatization deals, the Chicago parking meter lease and the Indiana toll road lease, and draws lessons about the right kinds of assets to lease and the things you need to get right while leasing them.

I identify several flaws in the Chicago parking meter lease as compared to the Indiana Toll Road one, grouped into two categories:

  • Things Chicago managed poorly in the transaction (how items). These include the public review process, the transition to the private vendor, squandering the proceeds, and impairing future revenue streams. None of these invalidates the idea of privatization, but rather are areas where governments need to focus to get it right.
  • Reasons why parking meters are a bad kind of asset for long term leases (what items). These include regular, recurring compensation events and the dynamic and close interaction of on street parking with neighborhood health and other public policy considerations.

Note that I do not critique the amount of money Chicago got for leasing its parking meters. This is a debatable item at best.

I also do not criticize privatization of parking meter operations. Nobody cares who takes the quarters out of the meter.

Contrasting toll roads with parking meters, I created a matrix of characteristics to help determine whether or not an asset is a good candidate for privatization.

Items that would appear to be better candidates for long term privatizations would be toll roads and bridges, airports, ports, and hospitals.

Click through to read the entire report.

Greg Hinz at Crain’s Chicago Business kindly posted some of his thoughts about the study.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Why Clinton Could Lose the Working Class in Ohio

Mon, 07/25/2016 - 22:38

In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tied in battleground Ohio. This suggests a very close race in Ohio in the fall. Economic issues, especially trade, led many former Democrats to cross party lines to support Trump in the Republican primaries. Many who hadn’t voted in recent elections joined them. We’re likely to see a repeat of this in November unless Democrats change their trade policies. None of this should surprise Democrats, especially those in Ohio.

As a professor of labor studies and co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University for more than 30 years, I had many opportunities to talk politics with workers there. In 2000, many told me that, after voting for Democrats all their lives, they were choosing guns, gays and God over Al Gore, who had been a primary spokesman for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seven years earlier. In 2002, Northeast Ohio Democrats threw out eight-term congressman Tom Sawyer on the basis of his support for NAFTA, despite Sawyer having a 90 percent voting record on labor issues.

Since the passage of NAFTA, Ohio Republicans have controlled state government save for a brief interlude caused by Republican corruption in 2006. At the same time, two Democrats — Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Tim Ryan, who replaced Sawyer — have been elected and re-elected in no small part due to their opposition to NAFTA and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Clearly, trade policy poses a problem for Democrats and their presumptive candidate. Clinton has been tied to former President Bill Clinton’s NAFTA legislation and its Wall Street proponents. While she has stated that she is against TPP at this time, many Ohioans hear that as weasel words that only contribute to their distrust of Clinton.

It is widely speculated that the Obama administration will push for TPP acceptance in the lame-duck session following the 2016 general election. According to a tweet from CNN’s Dan Merica, Clinton says she will not lobby Congress on the issue. But this will only undermine her credibility and provide Trump with an incentive to continue to demagogue the issue.

In Ohio, about 60 percent of voters in 2012 did not have a college degree, one of the most commonly used (though problematic) proxies for identifying working-class voters. Slightly more than half of them voted for Obama, according to CNN exit polls. But while Obama won a majority of working-class votes in Ohio, he lost among whites, winning only 41 percent of their votes. This suggests that a significant portion of Obama’s working-class support in 2012 came from Ohio voters of color, not white voters. Four years later, the combination of white working-class support for Trump, as we saw in the primary, and expected lower African-American turnout — Clinton is unlikely to inspire the enthusiasm that Obama generated — may swing Ohio’s prized electoral votes to the presumptive Republican nominee.

Clinton needs the support of working-class Ohioans – the very people who have been hurt the most by trade policy. To do that, she needs to stop insisting that trade is good. Her current stance is similar to wooing West Virginia coal miners by touting the benefits of non-carbon fuels. Similarly, she should stop talking about retraining and promising high-tech jobs, which only reminds voters of how hollow such programs have been in the past.

Instead, Clinton should acknowledge that we have lost the trade war and pledge to use every legal means at her disposal to protect American workers and industries from the continued onslaught of imports. This would include initiating trade cases against countries that target American industries by subsidizing their exports, exploiting workers, manipulating their currencies, and polluting the environment.

She should threaten to impose tariffs on every imported product from countries that refuse to implement the same U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations and federal, state and local tax requirements that are imposed on American businesses.

At the very least, Clinton should do more than promise to build a strong infrastructure program. Such a program would put the skills, materials and physical strength of working-class Ohioans to work and improve Ohio’s competitive economic environment. Clinton has identified specific programs but she needs to do more to explain how she will pay for them. Otherwise, her campaign platform will sound too much like an echo of past hollow campaign promises.

Clinton should also stress making college affordable for the working class and those living in poverty. Not everyone wants a desk job in front of a computer, and older workers may not be interested in retraining for high-tech jobs. But they do want more education and training for their kids.

Finally, working people worry about how they will fare economically after retirement. They know that Wall Street oversold 401(k) plans and that traditional pensions are disappearing. Clinton needs to reject Wall Street’s calls for changes in Social Security and offer a specific program to maintain private pension plans without cutting benefits.

If Clinton does not develop a strong and believable working-class agenda, I predict that the Democrats will lose Ohio in November, and that would open the door to a Trump victory nationally.

This piece first appeared in the Plain Dealer on June 26,2016, and was re-posted at Working Class Studies blog.

John Russo is a visiting fellow at Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University and at the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. He is the co-author with Sherry Linkon of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown (8th printing).

Photo by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America - Hillary ClintonCC BY-SA 2.0

The Future of Latino Politics

Sun, 07/24/2016 - 22:38

The sad decline in race relations has focused, almost exclusively, on the age-old, and sadly growing, chasm between black and white. Yet this divide may prove far less important, particularly in this election, than the direction of the Latino community.

This may be the first election where Latinos, now the nation’s largest minority group, may directly alter the result, courtesy of the race baiting by GOP nominee Donald Trump. If the GOP chooses to follow his nativist pattern, it may be time to write off the Republican Party nationally, much as has already occurred in California.

Today, Latinos represent 17 percent of the nation’s population; by 2050, they will account for roughly one in four Americans. Their voting power, as the GOP is likely to learn, to its regret this year, is also growing steadily, to 12 percent of eligible voters this year, and an estimated 18 percent by 2028.

Political geography may prove as critical here as rising numbers. African Americans, for historic reason, are heavily concentrated in deep blue cities, simply padding already existing Democratic supermajorities, or in the deep red South, where they are overwhelmed by a conservative white majority. In contrast, Latinos represent a growing constituency in critical swing states such as Florida, where they constitute one-fifth of the electorate, as well Virginia, Nevada, Colorado and, thanks to the genius of Donald Trump, perhaps even Arizona.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo by chadlewis76

Surprising Ordos: The Evolving Urban Form

Fri, 07/22/2016 - 22:38

Ordos, in China's Autonomous Region of Inner Mongolia (equivalent to a province) has received international notoriety as a "ghost city." I had already visited one other ghost city and found the reports considerably exaggerated (The Zhengzhou New Area in Henan, a commercial and residential district). But Ordos has received by far the most publicity.

It turns out that in reality the people far outnumber the ghosts, something I should have recognized when it was difficult to find a hotel room six months before my visit. Ghosts do not generally need hotel rooms.   But the ghost city label is an exaggeration.

Defining Ordos

What is Ordos? Ordos (E'erduosi) is one of the more than 300 municipality level jurisdictions that constitute China and cover virtually all of its land area. Like other municipalities, Ordos is divided into districts which are translated broadly as county level jurisdictions. China has about 2,900 county level jurisdictions, compared to the 3,100 county level jurisdictions in the United States. There is an important difference, however. In the United States, with a few exceptions, municipalities are within counties and there may be many municipalities within counties. In China, counties are within municipalities.

Ordos is one of 12 municipalities in Inner Mongolia. Ordos is composed of eight districts. The Ordos metropolitan area is located in the urban district of Dongsheng and the "banner" (Inner Mongolian title for county) of Ejin Horo (the urbanized part of which is Azhen). The Kangbashi new area, to which the ghost city stories refer, is split between Dongsheng and Ejin Horo.

Contrary to the “ghost city” meme, population growth has been strong in these two districts. In Dongsheng, the 2010 census counted approximately 580,000 residents, an increase of 130 percent over the 2000 census. The population of Ejin Horo rose 53 percent to approximately 225,000 residents. Overall, these two adjacent districts represent a labor market (metropolitan area) of nearly 810,000 residents, which grew more than 100 percent between 2000 and 2010 (Image 1).

Ordos is located in the northern half of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River, which with the Yangtze is one of China's two great rivers. After passing Lanzhou (capital of Gansu), the eastward flowing river takes a sharp left turn to the north for approximately 600 kilometers (375 miles), then a sharp right turn back to the east for 300 kilometers (200 miles), turning south for 600 kilometers and finally turning east toward the Yellow Sea.

Overall, the population of Ordos was approximately 1.94 million in the 2000 census and had grown 42 percent since 2000. As a result, Ordos was by far the fastest growing of the 12 municipalities in Inner Mongolia. The municipality grew at more than double the rate of the capital, Hohhot (Huhehaote), and approximately seven times the overall rate of Inner Mongolia. The growth rate of Ordos was also five times China's national 10 year growth rate of 7.8 percent.

The municipality covers a land area of 87,000 square kilometers, somewhat larger than Austria. Ordos Most of the population is in the more rural districts.

Genghis Khan

Genghis Kahn, founder of the Mongol empire (13th century), history's largest contiguous empire plays importantly in the history of Ordos. Genghis Kahn is reputed to have been so impressed by Ordos that he wanted his personal effects buried here. The effects are buried at a mausoleum approximately 10 miles (25 kilometers) south of Kangbashi. The actual burial place of Genghis Kahn is not known, and consistent with Mongol tradition, is secret.

The So-Called "Ghost City:" Kangbashi New Area

The part of Ordos to which the "Ghost City" stories have referred is the Kangbashi New Area. It is adjacent to and north of the urbanization of Azhen in Ejin Horo. The Kangbashi new area covers approximately 350 square kilometers (135 square miles) in the Dongsheng and Ejin Horo districts at the time of the 2010 census. Thus, a census population count is not readily available. Informal estimates placed the population at under 30,000 in 2010. A more recent informal estimate by an Ordos municipal official indicated that the registered population had reached 72,000 in 2012 and would soon rise to 100,000. 

Development of the Kangbashi New Area

Ordos is one of the most affluent municipalities of China. It is comparatively new wealth, which is the result of vast coal reserves that have been increasingly called upon since 2000 to support China's spectacular growth.  . According to People's Daily, by 2012 the gross domestic product per capita of Ordos exceeded that of both Spain and South Korea.

With the huge natural resource revenue gains, municipal officials decided to build a new city approximately 16 miles (25 kilometers) south of the municipal seat in Dongsheng. In 2006, the municipal seat was moved from Dongsheng to the Kangbashi new area. Both the Kangbashi New Area and Ejin Horo are within commuting distance of much larger Dongsheng, via the Dongsheng Expressway. As of 2012, the municipality indicated that at least one half of the municipal functions had been moved to Kangbashi.

The Ordos Ceremonial Mall

Some national governments in the world have built new capital cities or districts and taken the opportunity to order them around what might be called ceremonial malls --- government buildings, monuments and cultural institutions arranged around a central axis. Governments that build new capital cities have unique opportunities to build ceremonial malls. Perhaps the first of these was Washington, with its Capitol Mall (The Supreme Court to the Lincoln Memorial) and the later developed mall from the White House to the Jefferson Memorial.

Other particularly notable examples are Delhi, Canberra and Brasília. Perhaps the most famous such mall, though without the adjacent buildings and memorials, which had already been built elsewhere, is The Mall, running from Buckingham Palace to Trafalgar Square in London. This mall is somewhat different than the others, because it was built after most of the government buildings, which are located elsewhere.

Ceremonial malls can be built by local governments as well, and Ordos has built one of world-class dimensions. The table below compares the Ordos mall with other representative government malls. With a length of 2.7 miles (4.3 kilometers), the Ordos mall is approximately the equal of Washington's Capitol Mall and Canberra's middle mall, (Federation Mall/ANZAC Parade). The Ordos mall is somewhat shorter than the Delhi mall and less than one half the length of the Brasília mall, parts of which remain undeveloped. The Ordos mall is more than twice as long as The Mall in London.

The Ordos mall is more extensive, for example, than what may be the largest local government mall in the United States, in Los Angeles. This mall is shared by the city and the county of Los Angeles, with more than five times as many residents. In fact, the Ordos mall is of sufficient expanse and design to be mistaken for the centerpiece of a newly built national capital.

In short, the Ordos mall is world class and already attracting tourists, principally from around China. As with the rest of China, international tourism is in its infancy and holds great potential for growth.

Selected Ceremonial Malls Dimensions (KM) Dimensions (Miles) Location Length Axis Width Length Axis Width Government Population (Millions) Brasilia 9.7 0.21 6.0 0.13 National 195 Delhi 5.2 0.24 3.2 0.15 National 1225 Washington (Capitol Mall) 4.3 0.50 2.7 0.31 National 310 Ordos 4.3 0.18 2.7 0.11 Local 2 Canberra (Federation Mall/ANZAC Parade) 4.3 0.03 2.7 0.02 National 22 London (The Mall) 1.3 0.06 0.8 0.04 National 62 Los Angeles 1.1 0.08 0.7 0.05 Local 10 Axis width is minimum central area around which buildings and monuments are organized Canberra & Washington have more than one mall Some of Brasilia mall is undeveloped

Touring the Ordos Mall

The core of the mall is an axis, one large block wide, composed of greenery and statues (Images 2-13).

The mall stretches from municipal buildings at the north (Image 2) to a lake (Image 3), across which are skyscrapers, anchoring the mall on the south (Images 4 and 13). This interruption by a lake is similar to the Canberra mall described above

Near the north end of the mall is the Genghis Khan statue (Image 5).

The two horse’s statue is in the square to the south of the Genghis Khan statue (Image 6).

Each side of the mall is defined by one-way streets that are four lanes wide.

Among the two most important government buildings on the mall are the Library of Ordos and the Ordos Museum (to the left and right, respectively, in Image 9). Neither of these buildings will be pleasing to aficionados of traditional architecture, including the author. I agree with Chinese President Xi, who suggested that China needed no more weird buildings, referring to the CCTV Tower in Beijing, which local taxi drivers told me is referred to as the  "underpants" building. Of course, architecture is a matter of taste.

Across the mall is the Ordos National Theatre and the Ordos Culture and Arts Center (Image 10, left and right). The circular and curved lines of these buildings offer a welcome refuge from the more courageous architecture of the Library and Museum, in the author's view.

The mall also includes commercial buildings (Image 11). These buildings include a wide array of retail stores, such as large electronic and home appliance outlets, banks and other facilities. Within a one block walk of my hotel there were at least seven restaurants from which to choose. Generally, ghosts do not require this density of eating establishments.

Residential Areas

There are a variety of residential areas surrounding the mall on three sides (the south end of the mall is bordered by the urbanization of Ejin Horo). The residential buildings tend to be from 5 to 12 floors (Images 14 - 16), and include the equivalent of strip malls (Image 16) that are close at hand for residents and can have full parking lots. The residential areas also include some monumental treatments (Image 17).

Outside the Built-Up Urban Area

The built-up area of Kangbashi is relatively small, covering less than 10 square miles (25 square kilometers), or less than 10 percent of the Kangbashi new area.

Most of the "Ghost City" articles to limit their coverage to the small developed area. With the exception of a major roadway skeleton (along which there is virtually no development in many areas), much of the Kangbashi New Area is not a city at all. There are some small pockets of residential development spread throughout the area and a number of government buildings similarly dispersed beyond the built-up area (Images 18-24). At the same time, the parking lots were far from empty.

There are also a number of religious sites outside the built up urban area (Images 22 & 23) and three similarly designed sports facilities (Image 24).

The traffic volumes are well below the capacity of the more than ample arterial street system. But this is not unusual for newer suburban areas in China, where eight lane streets can be the rule.

What About the People?

Much of the ghost city coverage has been based on an assumption that   few if any residents have arrived. A number of articles point out that the present development has been built for 300,000 residents and that the population is much less (above). Yet, the municipality indicates that the 300,000 resident projection is for 2020. Whether or not Ordos will reach that population by 2020 cannot yet be known.

Some of the ghost city articles have claimed that the Kangbashi new area was projected to have 1 million residents. However, the municipality's website indicates that the 1,000,000 vision was for a much larger area than the Kangbashi new area. It also included Dongsheng, which alone already has nearly 600,000 residents as well as the urbanization of Ejin Horo. In other words, under the plan the area was already well on its way to achieving the eventual projection.

Other articles point out that there are few people walking on the streets. But, as Chai Jiliang, chief publicity officer of Kangbashi told China Daily in 2012: "So, why do local residents who mostly own private cars and have convenient public transportation have to walk on the streets if there are no major public events?" There is further evidence of people, the establishment of a campus of the Beijing Normal University in the Kangbashi new area. Indeed a recent article in The New York Times Style Magazine, by Jody Rosen,   reported not only that there were people in the Kangbashi new area, but that they were generally happy with their city.

Ejin Horo

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the Ejin Horo urbanization (Azhen), immediately to the south of the Kangbashi New Area (Images 25-27). The tallest buildings are here and some of the most impressive commercial architecture. Just across the principal bridge from the Kangbashi New Area are two buildings resembling the One World Wide Tower on Eighth Avenue in New York (Image 25). Ejin Horo also has many condominium towers that are often taller than those in the Kangbashi New Area. Unlike the Kangbashi New Area, Ejin Horo appears to have grown more organically in response to market demand. The area's international airport is also located in Ejin Horo.

Big Dreams, Big Challenges

The Kangbashi new area  does face some problems. Like the rest of China, there are a number of uncompleted building projects, as the economy is not growing nearly as quickly as before. Though, again, I expected many more based on the negative published reports.

There has been a severe reduction in house prices, as the Chinese economy has gotten worse. There are reports that many of the apartments and condominiums are empty, though no information was found on the extent of unsold houses or the number that have been purchased simply as investments to hold (and have no residents). It is not unusual for Chinese buyers to invest in additional properties, leaving them empty, a situation that is also been reported in central Vancouver. However, there was no lack of cars in the parking lots of the residential districts.

Peoples Daily reports that coal extraction volumes are down significantly, which when combined with substantially lower coal prices in recent years has cut severely into the revenues of the Ordos municipality. The municipality is seeking additional revenue enhancing strategies, such as tourism (there are 9 million tourists annually), automobile manufacturing and solar power facilities.

Liu Qiang, a People's Daily columnist noted that "There are worries that Ordos, with its huge debts and years of mismanagement, will repeat Detroit’s road to bankruptcy," While noting that Chinese municipalities are not permitted to file bankruptcy, the columnist suggests that " China's local government debt, if not being better managed, might potentially pose a systematic risk greater than in Detroit."

Big dreams are not limited to cities in China. Ordos may have built civic monuments and infrastructure beyond its means. Only time will tell whether such visions can be sustained. The reality, however, is that Ordos, including the Kangbashi new area, is surprisingly vibrant and functioning with real people.

Note 1: Inner Mongolia is a part of China. Mongolia (often called "Outer Mongolia) is an independent nation located between China and Russia.

Note 2: The Evolving Urban Form is a metropolitan and urban area profiles from around the world. The more than 50 articles on in the series can be accessed here.

Photo: Genghis Kahn Mausoleum, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China by Fanghong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international pubilc policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

The U.S. Cities Creating The Most White-Collar Jobs, 2016

Thu, 07/21/2016 - 22:38

The information sector may have glamour and manufacturing, nostalgia appeal, but the real action in high-wage job growth in the United States is in the vast realm of professional and business services. This is not only the largest high-wage part of the economy, employing just under 20 million people at an average salary of $30 an hour, it’s also one the few high-wage sectors in which employment has expanded steadily since 2010, at more than 3% a year, adding nearly 3 million white-collar jobs.

In many ways, the business and professional service sector may be the best indicator of future U.S. economic growth. It is not nearly as vulnerable to disruption as energy, manufacturing or information employment, and more deeply integrated into the economy, including professions like administrative services and management, legal services, scientific research, and computer systems and design.  In a pattern we have seen in other sectors, much of the growth is concentrated in two very different kinds of places: tech-rich metro areas and those that offer lower costs, and often more business-friendly atmospheres.

To generate our rankings of the best places for business services jobs, we looked at employment growth in the 366 metropolitan statistical areas for which BLS has complete data going back to 2005, weighting growth over the short-, medium- and long-term in that span, and factoring in momentum — whether growth is slowing or accelerating. (For a detailed description of our methodology, click here.)

Tech Strikes Again

There is a growing confluence between technology and business services, as more companies use the Internet to conduct commerce.

This can be seen in several of our top-ranked large cities. Business service employment in the San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco MSA has grown a remarkable 45% since 2010, placing it second on our list, slightly faster than third-ranked Austin-Round Rock, which clocked 42% growth over the same span, and No. 4 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, where business services employment expanded 36%.

It’s questionable whether this pattern will continue, particularly in the high-cost Bay Area. There are signs of a slowdown in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, with more space being subleased and property prices seeming to have peaked, albeit at extraordinary high levels. In contrast the future for less expensive areas — increasingly attractive to millennials as well as companies — may be far brighter, as companies shift employment to places their employees can live decently.

Resurgence In Middle America

This pattern can be seen in the balance of our top-performing regions. It starts with our top-ranked metro area, Nashville, Tenn., which has seen business service employment grow 47.2% since 2010 to 152,700 jobs, with 7.7% growth last year alone. Some of this comes from the establishment of branch offices of Silicon Valley companies like Lyft and Everbright, as well as the expansion of the area’s strong health care and entertainment industries.

Nashville’s appeal to millennials is unsurpassed, with the strongest growth rate in net migration of college-educated people aged 25-34 of any metro area in the country, and the reasons are not hard to find. It’s a charming city located in a temperate part of the country, with both excellent, and affordable, urban and suburban options.

But if Nashville is the belle of the business service ball, fifth-ranked Dallas-Ft. Worth is now the beast. The Texas powerhouse’s business services workforce has expanded 28.9% since 2010 to 458,200. The Dallas-Ft. Worth area has plenty of appeal to big companies with a large cohort of middle-income managers, as a paper to be published this fall by Southern Methodist University’s Klaus Desmet and Cullum Clark well describes. These jobs pay well enough to live well in Dallas’ nicer suburbs, such as Plano and Frisco, but not remotely enough to buy a house, or even a condo, in Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.

This accounts, in part, for the relocation of Toyota America’s headquarters from Torrance, Calif., to the north Dallas suburbs, and likely plays a role in the plans of Jacobs Engineering, a longtime fixture in Pasadena, to relocate its headquarters to downtown Dallas.

In many ways, argues urban analyst Aaron Renn, Dallas is becoming the new Chicago. It is anchored by a large airport, a diverse economy and a location in the middle of country. Even as downtown Chicago has attracted some notable new corporate headquarters in recent years, these generally employ relatively few people, while companies that need access to a large white-collar workforce, like Toyota and Jacobs, have been gravitating to the Big D.

How About The Big Boys?

As manufacturing has declined in our largest cities, professional and business services have become the prime generator of high-end jobs. Yet among the country’s largest business service centers there is a growing divergence between the winners and laggards.

The most impressive performance among metro areas with over 500,000 business and professional service jobs has been New York. With 714,000 business service jobs, the Big Apple is without question the leader in the field, but more importantly it continues to grow. Since 2010, New York has grown its professional and business service employment by an impressive 22%, helping it rank 14th on our list. This reflects the city’s continued preeminence in such fields as law, design, marketing, public relations and advertising.

But the other traditional business service leaders have not fared nearly as well. Gotham’s traditional rival, Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, still has 673,000 business service jobs but has seen only a modest growth just under 15%, ranking 43rd. Whatever may have been gained in generally small scale “executive headquarters” has not been enough to make the vast Chicagoland region a big winner.

Things are even less positive in 60th place Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, the third largest business service area. Since 2010, its 13.8% growth is well below the national average. Nor is the slack in the Southland being picked up by the area’s sprawling suburbs, with Santa Ana-Anaheim-Irvine ranking a modest 39th and San Bernardino-Riverside clocking in at 52nd. The Bay Area business services world may be still booming, but south of the Tehachapi, progress is slow.

Will Business Services Continue To Disperse?

Those who suggest dense concentrations have efficiencies that overcome higher costs can take some solace from our numbers, but not too much. Many of the fastest growing business service centers are hardly paragons of dense urbanism, including No. 7 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, Fla., and No. 8 Richmond, Va., where employment jumped 10% last year. Even sprawling Atlanta, which has lost some of its ‘90s era luster, is now growing its business service sector at a faster pace than New York and light years ahead of much denser Chicago and Los Angeles. It ranks 13th.

The shift to less expensive places seems certain to continue, in part due to the growing role of Internet communications, which breaks down formerly insurmountable distance barriers. Looking at the full list of the 366 metro areas we examined, the fastest-growers include many smaller communities, led by overall No. 1 New Bedford, Mass., where business services employment has grown 58.5% since 2010 to 6,200 jobs, as well as No. 3 Monroe, Mich., No. 4 Lake Charles, La., and No. 6 Lawton, Okla.

Essentially business service growth seems destined to break down into three types: (1) large and expensive metro areas — San Francisco-Silicon Valley and New York — whose economic dynamism is strong enough to counter high costs; (2) less expensive, but still large metros such as Nashville, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Richmond and a host of Florida cities that can be expected to garner a lion’s share of the new growth; and (3) smaller communities where business service sector jobs, particularly at the lower end, may be increasingly attracted as employers pursue an affordable quality of life. While the short term has favored the largest cities, the long term is pointing toward more migration to midsized and smaller destinations.

This piece first appeared at Forbes.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Michael Shires, Ph.D. is a professor at Pepperdine University School of Public Policy.

Photograph: Downtown Nashville from

So You Want a Revolution

Wed, 07/20/2016 - 22:38

You say you want a revolution

Well you know

We’d all want to change the world.____ The Beatles (1968)

Apparently not. Not any more. Not everyone wants to change the world. To the Beatles in 1968, when young people aged less than 30 added up to 52% of the US population, it might have looked like everyone wanted a revolution and that a nascent movement had a deep reserve of younger cohorts ready to push for change. But the percentage of the population aged less than 30 today is only 39% and falling. If 39% vs. 52% does not look like a big difference, consider that 13% of the US population is equivalent to 42 million additional young people who would be among us, if the percentage was the same as in 1968. A quarter to a third (10 to 14 million) would be in their 20s.

At the same time, because older more conservative generations would weigh less in the total population mix, their moderating influence would be less effective at deterring the young. This shift in the age distribution of the population explains why the youth revolt gained traction in 1968 but more recent attempts such as Occupy Wall Street turned to farce and fizzled out.

Meanwhile the over-45 age bracket now accounts for 41% of the US population (vs. 31% in 1968), its highest level ever and a level that explains the elevation of the two oldest presidential nominees in US history, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It also helps explain why the nostalgia-powered Trump is still a contender while the youth-oriented Bernie Sanders has withdrawn. At this stage of the process in 1970, Sanders would have been the nominee while Clinton and Trump would have already left the scene.

Speaking of revolutions, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal draws an analogy between Iran in 1979 and Turkey today in the immediate aftermath of the aborted Turkish coup d’etat. Writes the author:

Revolutions don’t require majorities, but rather angry and excited minorities that are willing to act violently to take power.

Undoubtedly true, but they also require a critical mass of young people combined with fairly dismal economic conditions which Turkey does not have now to the same extent as Iran in 1979. In 1979 in Iran, the under 30 accounted for a huge 71% of the population and Iranian GDP per capita on a PPP basis was about $2,000 (in 2013 dollars). By contrast, in Turkey today, the under 30 are only 50% and GDP per capita is in excess of $10,000. That is enough young people to shake things up as the young did in the West in 1968 but probably not enough to impose a lasting change as the young did in Iran in 1979.

A general hypothesis therefore is that the danger of civil unrest grows when per capita GDP is low and the population is young. Looking at successful uprisings in Algeria (1962), China (1949), Cuba (1952) and Iran (1979), we note that the under 30 numbered more than 60% in every case. Meanwhile revolts failed in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) where the under 30 were less than 50% of total population. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list and there may be examples that refute the hypothesis. In addition, foreign interference as in Hungary and Czechoslovakia renders the age distribution less relevant to the outcome of a revolt. But it is a fair bet that a larger young population in a lower-income country heightens the risk of unrest.

The graph below shows for each country the per capita GDP in 2014 dollars and the percentage of people aged less than 30. The US is shown in red. The cutoff levels are set at $5000 for GDP per capita and at 60% for population aged under 30. Countries in the upper left quadrant are wealthier and have fewer young people and are as a result at lower risk of civil unrest. Countries in the lower right are younger and poorer and have in theory a higher risk of civil unrest. Iran in 1979 was clearly in the lower right high-risk quadrant. Turkey today is in the upper left lower-risk quadrant.

Readers of this site may be familiar with this graph from a previous post discussing the relationship of fertility and national income. It is worth revisiting the earlier post to understand why some countries are outliers on the graph.

So what are the countries that fall in the lower right quadrant? These countries have an under 30 population of 60% or more of total, and a GDP per capita of $5,000 or less. Here is the list.

At the other extreme, if we look at Brexit and the nomination of Donald Trump as examples of a new form of revolt that we may call ‘older age populism’, here are the countries that are exposed to it, using as cutoffs $20,000 for GDP per capita and 40% for population aged less than 30. Not surprisingly, most of these countries are part of the West and most enjoyed a significant demographic dividend in the three decades 1975-2005.

Of course, most revolutions end badly, and many end very badly. On the revolution train, idealists sit in the front and present in the early days the benign and seductive case for change. Radicals bide their time while sitting in the back and later take over with their nefarious plans. The Beatles knew it:

But when you talk about destruction

Don’t you know that you can count me out

Full lyrics here.

Read more about why Occupy Wall Street failed.

Sami Karam is the founder and editor of and the creator of the populyst index™. populyst is about innovation, demography and society. Before populyst, he was the founder and manager of the Seven Global funds and a fund manager at leading asset managers in Boston and New York. In addition to a finance MBA from the Wharton School, he holds a Master's in Civil Engineering from Cornell and a Bachelor of Architecture from UT Austin.

A Different Approach to Redevelopment

Tue, 07/19/2016 - 22:38

As part of a thought experiment I examined one specific neighborhood in a typical small city in Georgia. I’m using this town not because it’s unique, but because it’s absolutely normative. I could do the same analysis on the town where my mom, sisters, and brother live in southern New Jersey and it would be nearly identical. This is Everytown, USA.


This particular neighborhood is halfway between the historic town center and the newer suburbs. It’s been completely skipped over and neglected in recent decades. What might be possible given the prevailing political and economic reality? The goal here is to improve the quality of life for existing residents, attract new residents, increase employment and economic activity, raise property values, and expand the tax base. The trick is to do all these things while keeping public spending and infrastructure to an absolute minimum and not use subsidies or tax abatements. I’ve rejected all the usual suspects that take too long, cost too much, and often make things worse.



This neighborhood can’t compete with newer suburbs for folks looking for the usual quiet leafy environment. It shouldn’t even try. Instead it could offer the one thing the new suburbs don’t – a walkable human scaled place with some modicum of vitality and street life. There’s pent up market demand for such places and almost no supply. My first suggestion is for this business district to turn its back on the main road. Call it what it is – a sewer for cars. It serves its purpose and keeps things flowing, but no one wants to sit and watch the material drift by. Ignore it.

Instead, the parallel secondary street should become the focus of attention. That’s the more appropriate Main Street location. Next, sort out local businesses that are “in” or “out.” The national chains won’t be interested. Let them continue doing what they do. Many of the independent merchants and landlords may not be so inclined either. That’s fine. Work with the folks who are. Baby steps.


Here’s an interstitial space formed by the back of a generic aging strip mall and an adjacent one story professional building. It’s a parking lot that doesn’t appear to get much use, but it’s an excellent outdoor room with good proportions that faces a quiet side street. If the city regulators and fire marshal could see their way to make it legal this is an ideal spot for a great gathering space.

Plants, inexpensive outdoor furniture, and simple food and drink (most likely served by existing merchants from the rear of their shops) would be a fast cheap method of making the area worth frequenting. Only the locals know exactly what would provide the best draw. Coffee? Beer? Ice cream? Barbecue? Or maybe this is the perfect spot for outdoor movies served with popcorn and lemonade on weekend nights. Total cost to the city? Some paperwork. Total cost to the property owners? Lawn furniture, plants, and Christmas lights. The “product” on offer is spontaneous conviviality. Effective management is more powerful than pouring concrete and laying asphalt.

The professional building appears to be vacant or less productive than it could be. The property owner may be happy with the current arrangement, but if not this could be a fantastic live/work space. There are a lot of people who find this sort of place appealing since it’s a blank slate and extremely flexible. It’s no doubt illegal to live in a commercial space due to zoning regulations. But those rules could be changed or quietly ignored by the authorities. Who’s to say what happens behind those brick walls? Live/work is the perfect in-between use for a building that sits halfway between a busy road and a calm residential street.


All the ice cream parlors, outdoor cafes, and beer gardens in the world won’t help if there aren’t enough people nearby to fill the seats. This building appears to be some kind of Class C office building. I walked around in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday and didn’t see a soul. I didn’t even hear the hum of an air conditioner. It may be a thriving hub of business activity for all I know, but it looks like a storage facility for old paperwork. I could see someone from a local neighborhood improvement organization brokering a deal between the landlord and the local orchestra, film and video school, or art museum to convert this place into studio space.

Actually, I’d love to see it as residential space for such people. It’s probably hard to practice the French horn in a garden apartment complex without people complaining. If the building were populated with a self selecting group of folks with an established affinity it might be a value added proposition.

If you’re horrified by the idea of living in a place like this… Great! You’ve self selected out. Perfect. Now move over and make room for the people who love it. The Mad Men era architecture could be celebrated just as it is. Howard Johnson’s meets Denny’s with a hint of 1960’s car wash. A little turquoise and orange paint and some Malibu lighting would work wonders.

There’s an abundance of commercial buildings that are simply not performing as intended. There’s no market demand for this kind of space in this location – and it’s been this way for a very long time.

Why not make these living spaces? Again, I need to belabor the point. This isn’t about attracting suburban families. Instead, these places are perfect for a subset of the population that actually likes cheap ugly spaces. Cheap and ugly are the primary amenities for some people. They value other things and enjoy the freedom that comes with such accommodations.

This is the secondary street that’s more suited to humans than the primary road full of vehicular traffic. It’s lifeless at the moment, but it could be transformed on the cheap with weekly pop up events organized around food trucks and a farmers market.

Over time the empty parking lots and food trucks could mature with brick and mortar infill development that make the arrangement permanent. The food trucks are incubators for small scale entrepreneurs on a tight budget. You need a million dollars to open a franchise doughnut shop. A food truck comes at a much lower price point.



Here’s a dead strip mall on the other side of the neighborhood that’s facing another busy commuter road. Again, the sweet spot is in the back that faces the residential side streets. Both the shops and the homes have seen better days. What can be done with this space?

This is an example of a non profit organization that specializes in the often neglected industrial arts. Welding, glass blowing, carpentry, neon arts, enameling, stone cutting, fashion, ceramics, and so on. Thousands of people – particularly young people – are trained in useful skills each year. People rent space and pay a modest tuition for instruction. This isn’t a government facility. It was established and continues to be maintained by locals who are passionate about the place. This is the kind of thing that could draw in precisely the variety of people who might look favorably on living in one of the fantastically affordable nearby homes. And they’d actually have the skills to fix them up.

I’m well aware of the arguments against this sort of thing. It will attract the wrong element. People will cook meth in spaces like that. People will have wild parties all night long and disturb the peace. This is just a bunch of Hipster nonsense.We can’t have people drinking beer outdoors near a church or school. I totally understand. From my perspective there are ways of managing those concerns, but I personally won’t invest ten minutes of my time attempting to change anyone’s opinion. Instead I’ll wait another ten or fifteen years for the current decline to continue. This place may not be ripe for reinvention yet. The local culture may not be receptive. Honestly, the neighborhood may not be miserable enough just yet. Let’s wait until these places start to burn down one by one. Or let them be bulldozed to make room for more parking or a heavily subsidized garden apartment complex next to the newly widened commuter road. That’s absolutely an option.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

Silicon Valley and the Logic of the Globalized Economy

Mon, 07/18/2016 - 22:38

The technology driven global economy is brutally competitive and has put enormous stress on businesses to adapt or die.

I lived through this at Accenture. When I started the firm was a partnership that did almost entirely consulting, mostly in an on-shore, on-site model with bespoke solutions.  By the time I left, the company had become a publicly traded corporation that pulled in huge revenues from completely new businesses like long-term outsourcing contracts, delivered contracts through blended on-shore/off-shore model that was heavily delivery center based, and tried to sell standardized solutions. The company’s name had even changed. It was a far more competitive business at the end of my tenure than it was at the beginning.

Having lived through it, this wasn’t pleasant. It involved radical cultural change. Candidly, I don’t know anyone who came from the “before” era who really liked the “after” one, even if they thrived in both.

With the exception of the IPO, which was arguably a partner cash out, all of these actions were more or less forced on Accenture by the global marketplace.  Had the company not made changes, it might easily have would up another has-been. I’m assuming there’s been further major change since I left, since that’s just the nature of the economy today.

To see the ultimate logic of the global economy we need only to look at Silicon Valley. The following passages in a recent New York Times magazine piece on Netflix caught my eye:

There is another underappreciated aspect of Netflix that Hastings views as a competitive advantage: what he calls its “high performance” culture. The company seeks out and rewards star performers while unapologetically pushing out the rest.

One person who helped Hastings create that culture is a woman named Patty McCord. The former head of human resources at Pure Software, she was also Hastings’s neighbor in Santa Cruz. She car-pooled to work with him and socialized with his family on weekends. “I thought the idea for Netflix was kind of stupid,” she told me. But she trusted Hastings’s instincts and wanted to keep working with him. Her title was chief talent officer.

The origins of the Netflix culture date to October 2001. The internet bubble burst the year before, and Netflix, once flush with venture capital, was running out of money. Netflix had to lay off roughly 50 employees, shrinking the staff by a third. “It was Reed’s first layoffs,” McCord says. “It was painful.”

The remaining 100 or so employees, despite working harder than before, enjoyed their jobs more. McCord and Hastings concluded that the reason was that they had held onto the self-motivated employees who assumed responsibility naturally. Office politics virtually disappeared; nobody had the time or the patience. “There was unusual clarity,” McCord says. “It was our survival. It was either make this work or we’re dead.” McCord says Hastings told her, “This is what a great company feels like.”


For those who fit in, Netflix was a great place to work — empowering and rational. There are no performance reviews, no limits on vacation time or maternity leave in the first year and a one-sentence expense policy: Do what is in the company’s best interest. But those who could not adapt found that their tenure at Netflix was stressful and short-lived. There was pressure on newcomers to show that they had what it took to make it at Netflix; those who didn’t were let go. “Reed would say, ‘Why are we coming up with performance plans for people who are not going to work out?’ ” McCord says. Instead, Netflix simply wrote them a check and parted ways.

In 2004, the culture was codified enough for Netflix to put it on a sequence of slides, which it posted on its corporate website five years later. It is an extraordinary document, 124 slides in all, covering everything from its salaries (it pays employees what it believes a competitor trying to poach them would) to why it rejects “brilliant jerks” (“cost to effective teamwork is too high”). The key concept is summed up in the 23rd slide. “We’re a team, not a family,” it reads. “Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”

One of my last interviews at Netflix was with Tawni Cranz, the company’s current chief talent officer, who started under Patty McCord in 2007. Five years later, McCord, her mentor, left. When I asked her why, she visibly flinched. She wouldn’t explain, but I learned later that Hastings had let her go.

You may recall a similar take on Silicon Valley corporate culture from the Times on Amazon. Journalism, a field that has been squeezed hard by technology and economic change, seems to look very askance at the Silicon Valley model.

What we see here is the “superstar” model, where firms are looking to hire all “A players” who are willing to be ridiculously committed to work, in a strong common culture, where there’s tremendous focus on performance – “high performance” in the case of Netflix (and Accenture – whose tag line is “High Performance. Delivered.”)

Because Silicon Valley has largely gotten a pass from the rules and norms that apply to every other industry in America, they’ve been able to take this to the next level, so we see it in the purest form. The results in Silicon Valley speak for themselves.

You can say that this is inhumane, but look at how many sectors in tech have become de facto winner take all. Netflix has serious competition out there, and it’s not at all clear they will be the long term winner. Their focus on being that winner is not at all misplaced according to the rules of the marketplace.

In short, this remorseless, amoral, brutal global economy is producing a sort of superstar talent economy in the developed world, whereby if you want to succeed, you need to be not just good but the best and utterly devoted to success.

Reality might not be quite that bleak, but this is clearly a force that’s been at work.

Most of us have probably had some experience with this kind of increasingly competitive and demanding environment. I know I have. You have to be a lot tougher coming out of school today than when I did.

Now consider that most of you reading me probably have an IQ of 115+.  And we are all still feeling the heat, although some of us surely thrive on it at some level.  Imagine what it’s like for people who have a below average IQ, which is by definition half the population.

If we proceed on with the superstar economy, where enormous value can be delivered with relatively small teams of ultra top players, what does that mean for the social environment?  It’s worth pondering what the future would look like if the Netflix/Amazon models of personnel became more standard.  The nature of technology and global competition seems to be pushing things in that direction.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Election 2016: Peak Transformation

Sun, 07/17/2016 - 22:38

Barack Obama came to office with a promise of “fundamentally transforming the United States.” Through what one admirer calls “a profound course correction engineered by relentless government activism,” Obama has, indeed, transformed the country and shifted it to what now passes for the Left agenda on America’s role in the world, the environment, gender issues, labor rights and untrammeled executive power over both Congress and local governments.

As he leaves office, Obama is already being consecrated as a great president whose direction will naturally be followed by his successor. Given his greater popularity – his rankings have been rising for months – the far less popular Hillary Clinton’s pitch will be to portray herself as something like “Obama-plus.” The transformation is about to hit its peak.

This progressive triumph is occurring despite mediocre economic growth, rising inequality and diminished global status. But it’s a record that can’t be successfully challenged by a GOP that has seen fit to nominate such a noxious candidate. With Trump at the top of the ticket, the Republican Party could also lose the Senate, and thus the Supreme Court, losing the last restraints on “the full monty” of the progressive agenda.

Trump’s ugly presence is sure to swell the Democratic base – minorities, millennials, unmarried women, highly educated professionals – even as the unstable billionaire captures a larger share of older, working-class, white voters. Hillary, as the American Prospect has argued, inherits a party dedicated to microtargeting its voter base, rather than seeking to reach out to a perceived dying white suburban and small-town middle America. Harold Meyerson, the incisive editor of the Prospect, calls this “the first post-middle-class election.”

A diminished white middle class is OK for a Democratic Party made up of college-for-free “Bernie bros,” urban hipsters, greens, racial minorities, feminists, public employees and gay activists. These groups won’t really challenge the real winners of the Obama years – the Wall Street and Silicon Valley oligarchs, who are willing to genuflect to the green and social agenda of the party, but can be even more sure, under the many-times-purchased Hillary, that their path to unreasonable, even dangerous, wealth and power will continue unimpeded.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Barack Obama photo by Bigstock.

The Shorter Commutes in American Suburbs and Exurbs

Fri, 07/15/2016 - 03:38

An examination of American Community Survey (ACS) data in the major metropolitan areas of the United States shows that suburbs and exurbs have the shortest one-way work trip travel times for the largest number of people. The analysis covers metropolitan areas with more than 1,000,000 population in 2012, from the 2010-2014 ACS (2012 average data) using the City Sector Model.

The City Sector Model

The City Sector Model classifies small areas (zip codes) of major metropolitan areas by their urban function (lifestyle). The City Sector Model includes five sectors (Figure 1). The first two are labeled as “urban core,” (Urban Core: CBD and Urban Core: Ring) replicating the urban densities and travel patterns of pre-World War II US cities, although these likely fall short of densities and travel behavior changes sought by contemporary urban planning (such as Plan Bay Area). There are two suburban sectors, the Earlier Suburbs and Later Suburbs. The fifth sector is the Exurbs, which is outside the built-up urban area. The principle purpose of the City Sector Model is to categorize metropolitan neighborhoods based on their intensity of urbanization, regardless of whether they are located within or outside the boundaries of the historical core municipality (Note 1).

One Way Commute Times by Urban Sector

The commuting data excludes employees who work at home, whose commute times would be zero.

The shortest one-way commute times are experienced by residents of the Earlier Suburbs, with a 26.6 minute travel time. This is nearly equalled for residents of the central business districts (Urban Core: CBD), with an average commute of 26.7 minutes. Commuters living in the Later Suburbs had a somewhat longer commute, at 28.0 minutes, while commuters living in the Exurbs had an average one-way commute of 29.5 minutes. The longest commute times were experienced by residents of the Urban Core: Ring (32.5 minutes), which is the part of the urban core that excludes the central business district, (Figure 2) and is characterized by high densities and lower levels of automobile use than in the suburbs and exurbs.

The functional city sectors with the shortest commutes had more jobs than resident workers. The Earlier Suburbs possess 1.08 jobs for every resident worker (Note 2). The ratio was much higher in the Urban Core: CBD, where there were nearly 5.99 jobs for every resident worker. Such an imbalance could not be replicated throughout a metropolitan area, because by definition, a labor market has a ratio of jobs to resident workers of approximately 1.00. To replicate the national CBD ratio throughout the metropolitan area would require, for example, that the New York metropolitan area have  54 million jobs for its 9 million workers.   

Not surprisingly, with such a surplus jobs relative to workers, the Urban Core: CBD, the chances of finding suitable employment nearby is far greater. However, this advantage can, by definition, be available only to a very few, as is indicated by the fact that the Urban Core: CBD's are home to only 1.5 percent of the resident workers in the major metropolitan areas. In the broader context of the urban core (including both the CBD and the Ring), this advantage is offset and average travel times are greater (below).

In the Later Suburbs, there were 0.90 jobs per resident worker, which matches that sector's ranking in work trip travel time (third). The  ring around the urban core (Urban Core: Ring) , had the longest average work trip travel time. The Exurbs had the lowest ratio of jobs to resident workers, at 0.71, yet had an average travel time that was shorter than that of the Urban Core: Ring (Figure 3).

Pre-World War II and Post-War Urban Form

The two combined urban core sectors are defined in the City Sector Model to replicate what remains of the pre-World War II city that was characterized by far higher densities and less reliance on automobile transportation, as opposed to the suburban and exurban sectors that have dominated urban growth for seven decades. If the two urban core sectors are combined (Urban Core: CBD and Urban Core: Ring), the number of jobs per resident worker is 1.28. This healthy ratio, however, is not sufficient to preserve any travel time advantage for residents of the combined urban core. In the combined urban core sectors, the average one-way travel time of 31.9 minutes, well above each of the other three functional sectors (Figures 4 and 5). The Urban Core: Ring has nearly nine times as many resident workers as the Urban Core: CBD.

The Pre-War urban form has considerably higher population densities than those of the post-war urban form. For example, the Urban Core: CBD has a population density exceeding 23,000 per square mile (9,000 per square kilometer), more than 80 percent of the New York City population density level. The Urban Core: Ring has a population density exceeding 11,000 per square mile. The combined area population density of the two Urban Core sectors is 11,500 per square mile, or 4,400 per square kilometer (Figure 6).

The two Urban Core sectors largely rely on commuting modes currently favored by urban planning policy, transit, cycling and walking. In contrast, the suburban and exurban sectors rely on commuting modes discouraged by urban planning policy, automobiles and car and van pools (Figure 7).

The combined urban core sectors have more than four times the density of the Earlier Suburbs and nearly nine times the density of the Later Suburbs. With these much higher densities and their reliance on the favored transport strategies, it might be expected that they would enjoy the best commute times. However, as noted above, when the two urban core sectors are combined, their average travel time is longer than the suburban and exurban sectors. This is despite the far lower densities of the two suburban sectors and the often world densities of the exurban sector.

The Key: Lower Densities & Job Dispersion

These results are likely to be surprising to many in the press as well as planners who often equate residential distance from central business districts as resulting in longer commutes. The reality, however, is that central business districts account for only 8 percent of employment in major US metropolitan areas, and reach the highest at 22 percent in New York, 50 percent above second place San Francisco (14.4 percent) and nearly 10 times that of Los Angeles (2.4 percent).

Generally speaking, employment is dispersed throughout the metropolitan area. When combined with the generally lower density urbanization within metropolitan areas, the result is shorter commutes for residents  in the suburbs and exurbs. As it turns out the data shows that higher employment densities in the urban core are associated with longer, not shorter commutes, as is commonly assumed.

Note 1: In some cases the functional urban core extends beyond the boundaries of the historical core municipality (such as in New York and Boston). In other cases, there is virtually no functional urban core (such as in San Jose or Phoenix). Functional urban cores accounted for 14.7 percent of the major metropolitan area population in 2012. By comparison, the jurisdictional urban cores (historical core municipalities) had 26.6 percent of the major metropolitan population, many of which have large tracts of functional suburban development.

Note 2: Estimated by dividing the percentage of jobs in each sector by the percentage of resident workers. Working at home is excluded.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international pubilc policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Population Change, 2015: Not Very Good News for Those Angry White Men

Thu, 07/14/2016 - 13:03

Data on population growth from 2010 to 2015 show a continuing concentration of people in metropolitan areas, especially in the large areas with over a million people, where presumably traditional values are most challenged.  I show an amazing table, in which I have disaggregated population change by type of settlement, from the million-metro areas to the purely rural counties, comparing growth amounts and rates, plus noting how these areas actually voted in 2012. From the title, the news that growth is greatest in the biggest places seems bad for Republican prospects, but the accompanying maps also show that the greatest growth may well be in more Republican parts of metropolitan America – a story of geography vs. demographics.

The data from the table are dramatic. Note that 275 million, or 86%, live in census-defined metropolitan areas (with urban agglomerations over 50,000), and 55.5% in just the 58 metro areas of over 1,000,000.  The biggest metro areas (but not the super large New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago) grew by 9.4 million, or 5.5%, the smaller metro areas by 3.4 million, or at 3.3 %, while non-metropolitan America dropped from 46.3 million to 46.1 million, down to 14% of the total population. 

The final column of the table shows how these areas voted in the 2012 presidential election. Obama won the big metro areas of over one million by taking 57.6 percent of the 2 person vote, which enabled him to get almost 52% of the total US vote while winning the three megacities – New York, Los Angeles and Chicago – by an even wider margin. This meant that despite LOSING all other settlement categories – 48% in smaller metro areas, only 41% in micropolitan areas, and a pathetic 40 percent in rural small town America, the President still won handily.

Population Change by Settlement Type, 2010 2015   # Counties 2010 Pop 2015 Pop Change % Chg % of Pop 2015 % Obama, 2012 Million Metro Center Counties          255   156,143    164,749      8,606 5.5% 51.3% Million Metro Outlying Counties          179     13,661      14,416         749 5.5% 4.5% Total Million Metros          434   169,804    179,165     9,355 5.5% 55.7% 57.6 Other Metro Center Counties          473     85,634      89,005      3,371 3.9% 27.7% Other Metro Outlying Counties          259       7,025         7,086           61 0.9% 2.2% Total Other Metros          732     92,659      96,091     3,432 3.7% 29.9% 48.3 Micro Center Counties          559     26,422      26,533         111 0.4% 8.3% Micro outly            92       1,080         1,070          (10) -0.9% 0.3% Total Micropolitan Areas          651     27,502      27,603         101 0.4% 8.6% 41.4 Rural Sm Town          727     14,058      13,899       (159) -1.1% 4.3% Rural Sm Town          598       4,731         4,663          (68) -1.4% 1.5% Total Non-metro Counties      1,325     18,789      18,462       (327) -1.7% 5.7% 40 ALL      3,142   308,774    321,435   12,664 4.1% 100.0% 52


So the good news for the Democrats is that the greatest population growth occurred in larger cities where Obama did best in and fell in areas he did poorest in.

But the story gets complicated once you get beyond the metro level. I now show maps, first of the pattern of population change by type of settlement, and then show how well Obama did in 2012 by these same settlement types. First we have a general map of population change for all US counties, in which I can display both the absolute change by symbol size and the percent change by color. Most apparent are the dominance of growth in metropolitan areas, especially in suburbs, and notably in the South and West. Note that quite a few of the growing counties appear to be in areas where Obama was not that strong (in maps to follow).

Population Change by Settlement Type

Rural and rural-small town areas include about 40% of counties and of the territory, but now hold under 6 percent of the population. Modest population loss is most common, especially across the eastern half of the country, while the pattern of change is more complex in the western half, with pockets of gain in areas of energy development, as in ND-MT, and TX-OK, undoubtedly temporary, and scattered areas of growth in environmental amenity areas farther west. The greatest extent of rurality is still from west Texas, north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South and North Dakota  and Montana.

Politically, Republican Romney swept most rural, small town territory over sizeable contiguous areas in the high plains, as well as the Mormon realm, but Democrats did win in majority Black counties in the south, Latino counties in Texas, and in Native American Indian counties in the far west. In sum, not a story to comfort Republican hopes.

Micropolitan areas now include about 20 percent of counties and of territory, and house almost nine percent of the population. They experienced only modest population growth from, 2010 to 2015. They are quite widely dispersed across the country, with the exception of most of California.  Just as with rural small-town territory, a pattern of modest loss prevails over the eastern half of the country and a more mixed pattern in the west, echoing the higher growth in areas of energy development, and in parts of the Mountain states and far west, including some environmentally attractive areas.

Politically, the micropolitan areas, with urban agglomerations between 10 and 50 thousand were almost as supportive of Republican Romney as the more rural areas, and in essentially the same geographic areas, in southern Appalachia, the high plains from Texas to North Dakota and in the Mormon realm, and with the same Democratic outliers in majority minority areas. Again, a pattern not too comforting for Republican prospects.

Metropolitan areas under 1 million  represent what could be called middle, compromise America, with about one-fourth of US counties, and with 30% of the population. Their geographic pattern is one of broad distribution in the interior of the country, but with a marked coastal concentration in the Gulf and South Atlantic.  Similarly, growth was modest or losses occurred in most of the interior eastern US,  but big gains in southeastern coastal areas, and across most of the far west.

Politically, too, these areas are intermediate, with Obama receiving 48% of the vote in 2012.  The outlying smaller metropolitan counties are indeed often quite rural.  Some of the growing areas were tilted  more  Republican, as on the Gulf coast and especially in the Mormon west, but in the Atlantic coastal states, and Pacific coast states, Obama did much better.  

Metro areas over 1 million.  Okay, these are the behemoths, one-seventh of counties with over half the population, and three-quarters of the growth.  But the fastest growth was across the south and in the west, with moderate growth and even modest losses in the north. The biggest metros – NY, Chicago and LA -- grew well below national averages. Also, contrary to the perception of the death of suburbia, the outlying counties of this set experienced very high growth. 

Politically, these suburban areas around the big metros may prove decisive, with the voting eligibility and inclinations of a diverse population critical to outcomes of the presidency and of Congress. Those suburban counties in the South appear to vote Republican, while those in the north and west became modestly Democratic. Size may benefit Democrats, but growth tilts Republican. Ultimately whichever proves most decisive may determine the election.

Richard Morrill is Professor Emeritus of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Washington. His research interests include: political geography (voting behavior, redistricting, local governance), population/demography/settlement/migration, urban geography and planning, urban transportation (i.e., old fashioned generalist).

Challenging Nordic Myths

Tue, 07/12/2016 - 22:38

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and numerous other American politicians want to increase taxes, regulate businesses and create a society where government takes responsibility for many aspects of daily life. If you are sick, the public sector should pay for your treatment and give you sick leave benefits. If you quit your job, taxpayers should support you. If you have a low income, the government should transfer money from your neighbor who has a better job.

The ideal is a society in which the state makes sure that those who work and those who don’t have a similar living standard. These are classical socialist ideas, or as Bernie Sanders himself would explain, the core ideas of social democracy.

Social democracy is becoming increasingly popular among Leftists in the United States. An important reason is that positive role models exist. In fact, a number of countries with social democratic policies — namely, the Nordic nations — have seemingly become everything that the Left would like America to be: prosperous yet equal, and with good social outcomes. Bernie Sanders has said, “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

At first glance, it is not difficult to understand the Left’s admiration for Nordic-style democratic socialism. These countries combine relatively high living standards with low poverty, long life spans and equal income distribution — everything the Left would like America to have. The Left, however, is simply failing to understand the reasons why Nordic societies are so successful. The reason is not large welfare states, but rather a unique culture.

Debunking Utopia – Exposing the myth of Nordic socialism, my new book, details the situation. Many people seem to forget that Nordic countries have not always had large welfare states. During the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, these places were shining examples of small government systems that combined open trade policies with free labor markets and a dynamic market system.

Today, Denmark, for example, stands out as having the highest tax rate among developed nations. But in 1960 the tax rate in the country was merely 25 per cent, lower than 27 percent in the US at the time. In Sweden, the rate was 29 percent, only slightly higher than the US.

During this time, the Nordic countries had already developed equal income distributions, long life spans, low child mortality rates, and high levels of prosperity. The reason is simple. In order to survive the harsh Nordic climate, the people in this part of the world adapted a rigorous work ethic. The Protestant norms of hard work and individual responsibility combined with a system that emphasized protection of private property, limited government and openness to global markets. Income equality grew and poverty was pushed back, thanks to the wealth creating force of markets.

In 1960, well before large welfare states had been created in Nordic countries, Swedes lived 3.2 years longer than Americans, while Norwegians lived 3.8 years longer. After the Nordic countries introduced universal health care, the difference shrunk: today, it is 2.9 years in Sweden and 2.6 years in Norway.

This fact might surprise those who believe that large welfare states lead to longer life spans. Once we study the issue in depth, however, it becomes clear that the explanation is cultural. Nordic people eat healthy diets, run in forests, and avoid the unhealthy lifestyles of many Americans.

In late 2015, a PBS story entitled "What Can The US Learn From Denmark?" stated, “Danes were excited this week to see their calm and prosperous country thrust into the spotlight of the U.S. presidential race when Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton sparred over whether there’s something Americans can learn from Denmark’s social model.” The story continued, “Danes get free or heavily subsidized health care” and “compensation when they’re unemployed, out sick from work or on parental leave,” adding that they have longer life spans than Americans.

Now, all these statements are certainly true. The only problem is that the story gives the impression that these facts are directly related. Danes have universal healthcare and government compensation when sick. Correspondingly, they live longer than Americans. So, for the US to raise its life expectancy rates, perhaps a Danish model should be adapted? After all, what kind of heartless monster would oppose policies that increase life spans?

Well, as it turns out, Danes lived 2.4 years longer than Americans in 1960 — when Denmark had lower taxes than the US. Today, the difference has shrunk to 1.5 years. Denmark no longer ranks among the top ten countries in the world in terms of lifespan.

Iceland, the Nordic country with the smallest welfare state, has far surpassed Denmark and the other Nordic countries in terms of life span. The explanation for this success is clearly not a large welfare state. Nor is it that the Icelandic people inhabit a pleasant country. Iceland is cold and dark. It has large, barren, volcanic fields which look much like the fictional Mordor of Lord of the Rings. But the Icelandic people enjoy going out in nature. Also, they eat a healthy diet based to a large extent on fish. The lesson is quite simple: Nordic culture, rather than Nordic-style social democracy, explain the social successes in this part of the world.

The American Left has an idealized, and fully unrealistic, vision of social democracy; a belief that if the US adapts a large welfare state it will magically succeed in this way. There is little if any merit to this viewpoint. Today, Nordic-Americans actually outstrip their cousins in the Nordics both in prosperity and social outcomes.

If we look at another broad measure of social success, child mortality, again we find that yes, Nordic countries indeed do have among the lowest levels in the world. But this too was already the case when these countries had small public sectors. As Sweden, Denmark and Norway introduced large welfare states, if anything they fell somewhat in global ranking. Iceland, on the other hand, climbed the ranking.

The conclusion is clear: Nordic social success pre-dates the modern welfare state, and was if anything more pronounced during the small-government era. Perhaps equally interesting is that while Nordic-style democratic socialism is all the rage among Leftist ideologues in the US, the same policies are to a large degree rejected by the people of the Nordic countries themselves.

After seeing his country held up as an example by in the Democratic presidential debate, the Danish prime minister, Lars Løkke, Rasmussen, objected to the skewed image of socialism in his country. In a speech at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, he told students, “I know that some people in the US associate the Nordic model with some sort of socialism. Therefore I would like to make one thing clear. Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.”

The remark comes as no surprise. While some US liberals believe that democratic socialism is a flattering label, in the Nordics many are distancing themselves from socialist ideas, pointing out that they, too, embrace the market. In many regards, the Danish government interferes less in the economy than the American government does.

While Denmark does have high taxes and generous welfare policies, today even the Danish Social Democratic Party acknowledges that these policies are slowly eroding responsibility norms, trapping people in welfare dependency and reducing the level of prosperity.

Out of the five Nordic countries, four currently have center-right governments. The only exception is Sweden, in which the Social Democratic Party – which holds the seat of power – has never in its modern history polled as weakly as it does today. Most Swedes vote either for the center-right coalition which wants to reduce the scope of government, or for the right-wing anti-immigration party.

Perhaps these facts are worth pointing out to Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, the journalists at PBS and numerous other Americans who believe that Nordic-style social democracy will transform America to Shangri-La.

Nima Sanandaji is president of the European Centre for Policy Reform and Entrepreneurship. His latest book is Debunking Utopia – Exposing the myth of Nordic socialism.

Copenhagen Harbor Water Bus by Jacob Surland

Learning from Medellín with Alejandro Echeverri

Mon, 07/11/2016 - 22:38

“I think, if you want to write a new narrative at some specific moment in the story of a city, it is important that you have to feel the transformation and see the transformation. So the physical transformation is important but always there is more a spiritual thing, as happens with emotional connections and inspirational things.” ______Architect Alejandro Echeverri.

If you have an interest in Latin America or in urban matters, you will have read by now that the city of Medellín, Colombia has undergone a startling transformation in the past fifteen years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the name of Medellín evoked fearsome drug cartels, violence and terrorism.

But in the 2000s, Medellín took a dramatic turn for the better. In 2012, it was selected from 200 contenders as Innovative City of the Year in a survey organized by the Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Today, it features regularly among lists of forward-looking cities and must-see destinations.

One of the most important actors in this giant leap is the Medellín architect Alejandro Echeverri. With the inspired leadership of Mayor Sergio Fajardo and a team of architects, engineers, communicators and social workers, Echeverri in his post as Medellín’s Director of Urban Projects set out to bring real improvements through a strategy of “social urbanism” which included large and small projects in the most troubled parts of the city.

Echeverri who is currently a 2016 Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design shared his thoughts with Sami Karam in this 50 minute podcast. A few highlights are transcribed below.

On giving value to local conditions: “It is better to add than to erase.”

From the start, Echeverri and his team avoided the top-down approach favored by past urban planners and worked to develop what he describes as a holistic collaboration between architects, community representatives, social workers, city administrators and the private sector.

At another time in another city, planners might have decided to clear existing low-income settlements and to restart with a clean slate, for example by building high-rise apartments in a parklike setting. Many such projects in the US and Europe are seen today as expensive failures where traditional relations of community and family break down and where crime and vandalism are chronic problems.

An important differentiator in Medellín was to leave existing homes and communities in place. Echeverri explains:

“First came respect and [the idea] to give value to the local conditions, give value to the memories. There is a lot of value. Sometimes because you have some different preconceptions and you belong to a different world, it is difficult for you to see the value of these things. I am talking not only about the value of the physical environment. I am talking about the value of the social engagement, the economy, most of it informal, but they have a lot of solidarity, networks and so on… The process of Medellín, the singularity is some special sensibility about local conditions and houses and thinking that it is better to add than to erase.”

“These projects don’t just have the goal of increasing the quality of life for people, but also to increase their pride and self-esteem.”

On gondolas, transit stations and library parks

Among the most visible physical improvements was the introduction of metro cable cars or gondolas that connect poor areas on the hillsides (the barrios) to the subway in the city below. The new transport system facilitated the commute to work, school etc. but as importantly, it created nodes of communal activity around the transit stations.

Metrocable and Biblioteca Espana. Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Ben Bowes.

Echeverri says:

“We wanted to do a holistic intervention around each station, combining physical transformation and programs of education, innovation, entrepreneurship and so on. So we used each station as a magnet to develop a public space. We focused as well on the itineraries of the common people, how the people use the barrios, from the houses to the schools to the stations and how to improve that condition and give them more public services and public spaces and new cultural facilities.  So, working with the community, and thinking that big infrastructures are important but the same importance is given to the small details, small interventions. And the intervention has to be with the people as well.”

In addition to the gondolas, as many as nine library parks designed by Colombian architects were built in poorer areas and stand today as symbols of a fresh approach to education and culture. One of the them, the Parque Biblioteca España is shown in the photo above.

How do you measure success?

With a decline in violence, all of Colombia has enjoyed a resurgence in investment and tourism. In 2011-15, foreign direct investment was over three times what it had been a decade earlier (source: In 2015, the number of foreign visitors, 76% of whom were vacationers, was over 2.5x higher than in 2005 ( Bogota was the number one destination with 45% of visitors, followed closely by Medellín with 39%.

Photo from Proyecto Urbano Integral / Alejandro Echeverri + Valencia Arquitectos.

Echeverri sees vindication and success in these figures and adds the following:

“The externalities that happened after we recovered the confidence and spirit of society permitted many other interests to start to see Medellín as an opportunity. International companies started to appear. Medellín started to be again one of the main cities for events in Latin America. A lot of researchers and universities were interested again to have partnerships with different institutions of Medellín. So, it is like a virtual cycle but we still have a structural problem. The challenge is big.”

“The main [way we measure success] is how the quotidianity [the daily life] happens today in our city. I am talking about the quotidianity, about the every day life in different parts of the city, mostly in some of the problematic areas, where the kids and the  people and the mothers could be out and move and have facilities of education and could spend half of the time in the public transport system going to work. When the kids go out of the houses or the schools, they don’t see the informal armies, the paramilitaries, that used to be in charge of the public space. So they have different opportunities. We still have problems and so on but the every day life changed a lot. Change the priority because the city today is thinking of education and innovation and not of violence and security.”

Can some lessons be applied to other cities?

With urbanization increasing all over the world, most cities face considerable challenges in infrastructure, housing and security. Echeverri believes that some ideas can be borrowed from Medellín’s experience.

“Every city has some singularity and some local conditions. But always, you find everybody is in agreement on what are the problematic issues and problematic areas of the city, but the political decision to solve those problematic areas and issues doesn’t happen. So focus on problematic areas, be strategic and continuous. Work with ethics, it is important. I strongly believe in the connection with the local conditions, the connection of the public policy and urban transformation with where the people live and where the people have an identity, where the life of the city is happening. I am talking about barrios and neighborhoods.

“To develop a holistic intervention in strategic areas is not easy but it is very powerful if you can combine simultaneously a package of actions: physical transformations, I am talking about public transport systems, public spaces, spaces for culture, education etc., a programmatic package in relation with innovation, local economies.”

To be sure, Echeverri is not declaring victory. He says that there remains much work ahead to cement and prolong the city’s achievements of recent years. He stresses the necessity of having a suitable organizational structure and institutional partnerships between the municipality, the private sector and academia. Other topics covered in the podcast include funding issues and the need for political continuity.

“You cannot change the story of a city in eight years or ten years.  I believe that the process of transformation of Medellín started and was very consistent because some processes happened in a good way but it needs continuity, more years to develop. You improve some specific conditions in some areas but you cannot transform and recover all the problems. For example, the housing problem which is still there.”

There is much more in the podcast. Listen to the whole thing.


Sami Karam is the founder and editor of and the creator of the populyst index™. populyst is about innovation, demography and society. Before populyst, he was the founder and manager of the Seven Global funds and a fund manager at leading asset managers in Boston and New York. In addition to a finance MBA from the Wharton School, he holds a Master's in Civil Engineering from Cornell and a Bachelor of Architecture from UT Austin.

Top photo by User: (WT-shared) CONOCER at wts wikivoyage (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chicago's Advantages

Sun, 07/10/2016 - 22:38

When I wrote that Chicago is the duck-billed platypus of American cities, I noted that there were a lot things about Chicago that were unique – both good and bad – putting it in a class of its own and making it hard to compare Chicago with other cities.

Today I want to put together a starter list of some of the positive distinguishing factors about Chicago. This doesn’t include things like a downtown construction boom because lots of places have one of those. If Chicago’s boom is big, well, it’s a big city. I only want to put something on the list if it is truly distinguishing, or perhaps something limited to only one or two other places.

I’ll create a starter list. Feel free to share yours in the comments.

  • Cheap – least expensive major urban center in America. A middle management level couple can afford a very nice condo in Chicago.
  • Only globally important financial exchange in America outside NYC (the CME Group)
  • Only full slate of globally renowned cultural institutions outside NYC
  • Only large scale, transit oriented central business district outside NYC – and with a skyline to match
  • Fantastic architecture
  • Not only does Chicago have great skyline, it’s got great vistas of the skyline even from within the city (something missing in NYC inside Manhattan)
  • It’s the alley capital of America
  • Improv capital of the world, and one of only three major training locations for comedy in the US (with NYC and LA)
  • Incredible lakefront park system
  • Most car friendly urban big city in America (traffic is bad, but much of housing stock comes with a parking spot, and there are plenty of stores you can drive to – great for families)

There are probably some things like food and music scene were you can rate Chicago as in a league above most cities, but it’s tougher to make that case since you can get great food everywhere now, etc.

Share your thoughts in the comments because I don’t want to leave anything out.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo by Doug Siefken

Adding Space to Suburbia

Sun, 07/10/2016 - 08:36

Space has value. Even the mere perception of space has value. As land becomes more scarce, space becomes more valuable, and has a direct impact on housing costs and a developer’s profit (or loss). Both developers and the New Urbanists who preach that dense cities are good places know this, even as they pressure town councils and planning commissions to authorize reduced lot sizes. Where they have succeeded, the resulting compressed lots sacrifice quality organic space — green space — to the point of oblivion.

Less than a half century ago, Phoenix was a sleepy retirement town with vast openness and desert character. A few years ago, my wife Adrienne and I visited the city. Today’s Phoenix, like Las Vegas, Albuquerque, etc., is a blanket of rooftop and pavement with a few strip malls spattered about. We met with developers to demonstrate a new way to design that increases lot size (value), while reducing infrastructure (costs). Without exception, developers responded: "People move to Phoenix to have a smaller lot. They do not want space." So we visited the new, compressed developments, and asked residents about their new homes. Without exception, all the residents we interviewed loved their new places, but wished they had more space, especially between themselves and their neighbors.

Simply put, a larger lot with more space is likely to be more valuable to residents, but builders are interested more in selling ‘product’ — homes. The more, the better.

A buyer will pay more for a large home than a small one; for a large lot than a small one. They will pay a premium for a home with a view of space over that what they would pay for a view into a neighbor’s adjacent yard.

Space has value, and value translates to an increased tax base.

The social engineer will argue that it’s OK to sacrifice space because there will be a small park a five or ten minute ‘walk’ away. Reality check: A very small percentage of residents will actually walk to that park, but the homes that can view that space will be priced at a premium, costing well above the homes in a sardine-like placement far from the park. In denser suburbs or new urban communities, the haves will enjoy space; the have-nots, not so much.

If space does not have value, as the proponents of dense neighborhoods claim, then why is it so heavily featured in home builders' sales and marketing materials? When a home builder uses a marketing photograph, it is taken at a wide angle to make the lot appear larger than it actually is. When a builder uses a rendering on their web site or sales materials, it’s never shown with adjacent homes compressing the visual space.

How can we feed the hunger for space? The conventional design methods that have been used since the dawn of civilization can't work. To achieve increased space while preserving a higher density standard, the housing industry needs to take an approach that incorporates innovation and attractive value.

That begins with the recognition that space is something that you feel, even though it is limited by non-transparent objects that form a physical barrier in our three dimensional world. When we are inside a structure, it’s the walls around us in reference to the flat floor; when we are outside, it's the distance we perceive between homes. We might estimate a distance as longer or shorter, depending on whether the terrain was hilly or flat.

Does five acres within a neighborhood park constitute open space? It sounds like it will, but if it's along steep slopes or thickly wooded land with natural underbrush it won’t feel open. If it’s a park that residents must stroll to from their homes, the space has less value than if it can be viewed through their windows.

As for conventional interior space, the perimeter of a home is often determined by the lot size, depending on local zoning. In the case of a Phoenix lot that is 50 feet wide by 100 feet deep, with a 5 foot side yard setback and a 20 foot front and rear yard setback, the home would be allowed to be 40 feet wide and 60 feet deep. Assuming a 20 foot by 20 foot garage and 6 inch exterior wall, that leaves 1,880 square feet of living space within the home.

But— that only would result if the home were expanded to the largest possible perimeter. Included in that perimeter would be 145 feet of side yard, the entry door, and two car spaces in the garage, leaving only 55 feet for possible window locations that would overlook the front and rear yards. Within that footprint, the architect must lay out the bedrooms, closets, bathrooms, kitchen, living and family rooms, and any other living space.

A great architect will make the resident ‘feel’ the most of the available space. A bad designer will make the home feel smaller than it actually is. Neither the good nor the bad architect (especially when the project is created by production builders) will consider the views from within the home, because, simply put, with New Urban and suburban cookie cutter subdividing, there are none. In most southern cities the rear view overlooks a wall or fence 20 feet away, and the next house structure is at a 40 foot distance. The front view (if any windows exist at all from front-placed living space) will be the garage door across the street, 90 feet away, along with driveways, the street, and parked cars. This is why modern home living spaces are rear, not front, oriented. Not much to look at. That is, unless you pay more – much more – to be in a neighborhood with larger lots.

Conventional exterior space is also dictated by city regulations. Local zoning ordinances determine the allowed width and depth, to limit density with the promise of more space and a larger home footprint. In conventionally subdivided developments, side yard space is not a quality area, since the sides of homes typically are void of windows, and even if there were views, those windows would look directly into the neighboring wall just 10 to 20 feet in the distance.

The image below shows two streets:

The left one has a 90 foot wide lot; the right one has a 60’ foot wide lot. Both use the same 25 foot front yard setback. From a ‘human’ perspective, looking down the street, both have the same 100 foot wide swath of open space, yet the smaller lot achieves 33 percent more homes with the exact same infrastructure (street) expense. Because the street covers the same land area in both cases, the actual density gain on the smaller lot would be about 25 percent, while providing the very same ‘feel’ of space as the larger lot. Assuming that the intention of suburban zoning is to set both space and value, the typical ordinance does a terrible job on providing extra actual perceived space.

Considering that space has real value, educators at colleges, and at design conferences, and all teachers of architecture and of urban and/or suburban design, should be concentrating more on how interior and exterior spaces can merge in more meaningful ways than on the trim of a front porch. Craftsman trim on a porch railing may add a wee bit of value, but living spaces coordinated with views of open space add a huge increase in value. A park may add overall neighborhood value, but living on a street that has park-like space adds tremendous value.

Cookie-cutter Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) plans generated specifically to build to the regulatory minimums will never satisfy the hunger for space. These two videos demonstrate my solutions. Along with other innovative approaches that merge planning and architecture, they show the paths we need to follow if we are to achieve sustainable housing, and sustainable zoning.

Rick Harrison is President of Rick Harrison Site Design Studio and Neighborhood Innovations, LLC. He is author of Prefurbia: Reinventing The Suburbs From Disdainable To Sustainable and creator of LandMentor. His websites are and

Flickr photo by Joan of cat in a suburban yard

Australia: Mad As Hell And Not Gonna Take It?

Fri, 07/08/2016 - 14:19

The result of Australia’s recent Federal election remains unclear, as the count has continued — as of this writing — for days. What is clear is that the major parties suffered a rebuff. One in four Australians voted for an alternative to the traditional mainstream parties, a historic record. Even if incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can win enough seats to control the lower house (nearly tossing out a first term Prime Minister is another first for this election), the Senate is well beyond reach of a majority. As psephologists — those who study elections — digest the details, it is looking increasingly as if the losses can be related to a suburban and regional community disgruntled with the attitudes and indulgences of inner urban elites.

The values of these elites, including the Prime Minister, seem increasingly at odds with the wider community in everything from economic opportunity to housing, transit, access to education, cost of living concerns, immigration policy, the environment, and more. That divergence made itself felt with a tectonic shift in the latest ballot result.

First, a crash course in Australian politics. Australia operates a Westminster style democracy. Every person aged 18 and over is required to vote (yes, it’s compulsory). They vote for geographic representatives in the lower house (the House of Representatives), and also for State representatives in the upper house, the Senate — a house of review. Each lower house seat represents approximately 150,000 people. Some electoral districts, given our sparse population density in rural and remote areas, can be larger than Texas in area. Most, however are metropolitan, given that 80 percent of Australians live in just five major cities. Each State elects 12 Senators, plus two for each Territory — being the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. There are 150 Members of the House of Representative and there are 78 Senators.

Voting is by a preferential system. Imagine a lower house seat with five candidates representing various political parties. Voters are required to number their ballots in order of preference, and to number each box. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated, but the second preference flows to the candidate numbered next on a given ballot. This process continues until only two candidates remain, the one with the most votes being declared the winner. The same happens in the Senate for each State. Because the Senate typically attracts a wide field of candidates and parties (we even had a Pirate Party this time), the Senate Ballot paper can be over three feet wide. Fortunately, voters only need to number their top six choices of party ‘above the line’ for the Senate. Suckers for punishment can number every single box.

The main political parties in Australia are the Labor Party (akin to the Democrats); the Liberal Party (akin to Republicans); the National Party (mainly rural conservatives); and The Greens (left wing environmentalists). The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives forms the government. There is usually a range of smaller fringe parties that record little support, but in this election, One Nation (resembling the Tea Party movement), The Nick Xenophon Party (a populist party), various Christian groups and others combined to achieve 5 seats in the lower house and around 11 in the Senate. Forming a majority in the lower house is now looking difficult, and there is no chance of a majority in the upper house.

It is unlike the American system in that there is no Presidential vote, although our politics have become Presidential in campaign style. Our Prime Minister (from the conservative Liberal Party, although many in the party dispute his conservatism), is elected by the party's Members of Parliament only. In other words, the only people who actually get to vote for our current (for the time being) Prime Minister are the voters of Wentworth, his electorate. The rest of the country votes locally for their own candidates. PMs rely on the support of their party room. This is how we manage to have Prime Ministers who can be tossed out not by popular vote, but by party room vote. It makes life interesting, especially in recent years, when we seem to be averaging a new PM each year without the need for an election. The PM forms a Cabinet of their own choosing, drawn from elected party members. This cabinet includes members of both upper and lower houses, but the PM is drawn from the lower house.

So what happened? In a word: rebellion. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a graduate of Oxford University and a former barrister, is independently wealthy, living in a multimillion dollar Sydney harbour-side home. Having millionaire leaders might be familiar to Americans, but for Australians it’s unusual. His wife is Lucy Turnbull, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney (which represents only the downtown and immediately adjacent areas), and a prominent urbanist, who also chairs the Greater Sydney Commission. Together, they proudly champion the agenda of the inner urban elites: light rail projects, mass transit projects, increasing urban density, ‘knowledge workers’ as the future of industry, and so on. In the election campaign, Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was happy to be pictured in his campaign bus, actively touring disadvantaged outer-urban and regional areas, while Turnbull was happy to be pictured riding in a Sydney train.

One of Turnbull’s first acts as Prime Minister, after unseating his conservative predecessor Tony Abbott in a party room coup, was to form a ‘Cities Ministry’ which later released a Smart Cities Plan, much to the adulation of the elites who claimed that without a dedicated Minister for Cities, Australia’s future prosperity was in jeopardy. “Great cities attract, retain and develop increasingly mobile talent and organisations, encouraging them to innovate, create jobs and support growth,” the PM said. The statement was received with wide applause from fawning urban industry groups, media, academics, planners, and left leaning think tanks.

This wasn’t a focus of the election campaign, but it does perhaps provide an insight into how the politics of a mainstream party and incumbent government, still in its first term, diverged from mainstream Australia. Australia may be among the world’s most highly urbanised nations, but our urbanism is largely suburban by nature. The concerns of suburban and regional electorates focus on cost of living pressures, low wage growth, unaffordable housing, evaporating job opportunities and the casualization of work towards contract positions. For these voters, the importance of inner city light rail projects designed to improve commuting opportunities for a minority of high income, inner-urban dwellers just doesn’t rate on the scale of essential public policy investment. Analysis of the voting patterns of the latest election show that some of the greatest swings against the government came from those middle and outer urban electorates, along with disadvantaged regional communities.

Neither can the Labor opposition take much comfort from the result. The swing resulted in only a small pickup for them— insufficient to win government — and failed to win enough support from their traditional base, which abandoned the mainstream left for alternative minor parties. Both Liberals and Labor had fallen for the politically correct, left leaning, inner urban policy kool-aid that has increasingly come to represent orthodox establishment views.

In the same way that the UK ‘Brexit’ Leave vote was supported by communities that did not share in the benefits enjoyed by inner-London elites, many Australians also cast a vote of rebellion, turning their backs on the advice and views of the many inner-urban experts who have talked down to them for years.

For many, the recent Australian election resembled an opportunity to re-enact the speech of Howard Beale (played by an Australian, Peter Finch) in the film Network: “Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'”

Ross Elliott has more than twenty years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.

Flickr photo by Pedro Szekely: cloudy skies over the Sydney Opera House.

The Meaning of the Baby Bust

Thu, 07/07/2016 - 22:38

With a stronger economy and a growing number of women of child-bearing age, Americans should be producing offspring at a healthy clip. But the most recent data suggest that this is not happening, as the birthrate in 2015 dropped to a historic low. A new study from the University of New Hampshire suggests that these trends have resulted in 3.4 million fewer births since 2008, based on the pre-recession fertility rate, or roughly 15 percent fewer births than would have occurred at the 2007 birth rate.

Once an exception to demographic decline, our country may be falling into the dismal pattern that is now common in other high-income countries, notably in East Asia and Europe. Europe’s demographic crisis is one reason European Union officials, particularly in Germany, opened the floodgates to mass migration from the Middle East and other unstable areas. In many parts of Europe, more people are dying than are being born.

Now America may be joining the downward fertility spiral. Since the recession, the number of new children has plummeted, and it’s dropped the most precipitously for new mothers. The number of households with their own children in 2014 was 33 million, down from 35 million in 2005, even as the total number of households has shot up by nearly 6 million. By comparison, there are about 43 million households with dogs, according to the ASPCA’s low-end estimate.

Shifts in child bearing will profoundly affect our geography, politics and economic future. Children, after all, define our future society, and provide the primary motivation for parents and grandparents. Without a strong familial structure, we will be facing a rather grim future, as an expanding older population grows ever more dependent on a shrinking base of young working-age people. Demographer Sami Karam notes that the 1980s Reagan boom benefited from demographics of that period, with a rising proportion of working people to retirees. With trends headed the opposite way, he suggests, no such expansion may even be possible today.

To some, of course, an increasingly childless future represents something of an ideal. Many greens regard offspring as unwanted additional emitters of carbon, and historically have proposed limiting families. It also provides manna to those high-density developers who no longer will have to worry about renters seeking to establish themselves in homes best suited for raising children.

Read the entire piece at The Orange County Register.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, will be published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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