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Archive for the ‘Small Towns’ Category

Log cabin

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

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Chicago streets at night

Pushing high density living may seem like a good way to get people out of their cars—saving them money, curbing emissions, and reducing oil dependence—but densification may not be a silver bullet, according to one recent study. The authors dug into the National Household Transportation Survey to examine per household vehicle ownership rates, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and fuel consumption. While the results are by no means comprehensive or conclusive, they suggest that only the steepest increases in density could reduce car usage.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgDespite a correlation between density and car usage, other factors seem to play more important roles. Density is responsible for a fraction of annual VMT; increasing density by 1,000 housing units per square mile—a titanic leap, given that the average household is 2.6 people—reduces VMT by just 1,171 miles, all else being equal. Since that the average one-driver household in the study tacks on 10,100 miles per year, that represents just over an 11 percent drop in annual mileage.

housing density and Vehicle Miles Traveled

If you look at the numbers another way, the case for density reducing car usage looks even more tenuous. VMT only really declines substantially at the highest housing density—over 5,000 units per square mile, or about the same as Chicago. To halve VMT of the highest mileage households, you would need to increase housing density in those areas by 20- to 100- fold.

The inflexibility of our automobile usage boils down to a few factors, with work being the most important. The more workers in a household, the more drivers, and the more drivers, the more miles. A one-driver household, as noted above, tallies 10,100 miles per year; a two-driver household racks up 18,800 miles; three drivers, 33,900; four drivers, 47,700.¹ We are, by and large, beholden to our cars because we are beholden to our jobs. After that, driving increases as a result of income (richer people drive more), number of children (more and larger cars), education (higher education means more cars), and people’s life stage (households with older children have more cars).

While higher housing density doesn’t seem to reduce VMT, it does drive down fuel consumption. Households in the 50 to 250 houses per square mile range use 1,650 gallons of fuel annually, the most of any group. Every other group uses far less fuel. In the big cities, fuel usage drops to 690 gallons per household per year.² The reason? People with the space to use pickup trucks, SUVs, and vans tend to buy them more than people who live and drive on tighter city streets—they typically drive smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles. Yet this trend could be changing as we speak. Small car purchases have been increasing across the country, and anecdotally at least, I can confirm that large pickup trucks are harder than ever to sell these days.

fuel consumption and Vehicle Miles Traveled

One of the main arguments behind higher density living is that it will reduce our carbon footprint. While density may be a better long term solution, right now the most expeditious approach is to increase fuel economy. Rebuilding neighborhoods will take decades. In that time, most people will buy at least a handful of new cars, primarily for commuting to work. It would be great if everyone had access to mass transit, but for many, mass transit isn’t just a poor option, it isn’t an option at all. Those who do travel by bus or train today may only be a job change away from having to drive. Modern life demands mobility, and few things are better at providing that than the automobile.

¹ The increase from one to two drivers probably reflects some combining of trips by couples or roommates. The sharp increase from two to three drivers is probably the result of a family’s children driving to school or work.

² The lone outlier is areas below 50 houses per square mile, where households use 1,200 gallons per year. They probably have fewer nearby destinations, and so stay home more often.

Source:

Brownstone, D., & Golob, T. (2009). The impact of residential density on vehicle usage and energy consumption Journal of Urban Economics, 65 (1), 91-98 DOI: 10.1016/j.jue.2008.09.002

Photo by dsearls.

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Blueberry farm in winter

Suicide often raises one question more than any other: why? The answers are often varied, but that hasn’t stopped epidemiologists, psychiatrists, and other experts from trying to find some common threads. They may include anything from mental health to financial condition to gun ownership. Population density plays a role, too, though not the one you might suspect.

Sociologists in the 1930s speculated that the mayhem of the modern city drove people to take their own lives. On the surface, it sounds logical. Cities can be large, impersonal places. It’s easy to imagine a single person becoming lost in a swarm of millions with no safety net of friends or family to prevent him or her from falling into deep despair. Yet research seems to have proven that theory wrong. Many studies have discovered that people in rural areas—not cities—seem to have higher rates of suicide.

In Japan, a nation with a culture steeped in ritual suicide, suicide rates for men living in cities dropped between 1970 and 1990. Over roughly the same period, rates increased in rural areas. Suicide rates among Japan’s rural elderly are much higher than its urban elderly, too. Similar trends show up on the other side of the globe. In England and Wales, more people between the ages of 15 and 44 living in rural areas took their lives compared to those in cities. Many studies in the United States have discovered the same.

Suicide is also a significant problem in the Australian outback, where rates are two, even three times higher among men than their metropolitan analogs. At fault may be the consolidation of farms that took place in the latter half of the 20th century, leaving young men in the country with fewer employment opportunities. Combine that with easy access to firearms and pesticides (a very common method of suicide in agricultural areas around the world), and you have a recipe for disaster. Indeed, between 1964 and 1988, suicide rates for 15 to 19 year old boys living in the outback increased nearly fivefold, and the use of firearms in the act also increased fivefold.

Access to firearms is a recurring theme in the literature on suicide. Experts think easy access to firearms is partly behind the high rates observed in the countryside. Part of the problem is the lethal reliability of guns—an attempt with a gun is often more successful than other methods. Guns and suicidal tendencies are such a lethal combination that more people in the United States people kill themselves with guns than any other method.

Blaming guns would be a convenient way to wrap up this story, but the reality is that they are merely a means—albeit a very effective means—of committing suicide. Rather, there are deeper issues behind high rural suicides rates, most of which revolve around how mental health issues are handled. Mental health disorders are one of the main factors that lead people to suicide—as much as 70 percent of cases involve someone with a mental illness. Rural ideologies of self-reliance and hard work can lead to stigma against people with mental illness and discourage them from seeking help. Furthermore, the vastness of rural areas often means mental health services are few and far between. Even simple isolation is also a factor. Long distances mean fewer social bonds that could help pull someone back from the brink, especially for elderly people that have a hard time getting around.

That’s not to say the picture is hopeless. Education focused on reducing the stigma of mental illness can go a long way, especially considering that the majority of suicides occur among people with mental illness. Traveling counselors, crisis lines, and even educating clergy about risk factors can help. Though some of these proposed solutions are speculative—rural suicide is still greatly understudied—many are based on proven models from urban areas. The barrier, as always, is money. Providing services to rural areas is notoriously expensive, and in this age of budget cutting, social programs like these are often first in line for the axe.

Sources:

Dudley M, Waters B, Kelk N, & Howard J (1992). Youth suicide in New South Wales: urban-rural trends. The Medical journal of Australia, 156 (2), 83-8 PMID: 1736082

Hirsch, J. (2006). A Review of the Literature on Rural Suicide Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 27 (4), 189-199 DOI: 10.1027/0227-5910.27.4.189

Strong K., Trickett P., Titulaer I., & Bhatia K. (1998). Health in rural and remote Australia: the first report of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on rural health Report Other: 9780642247827

Photo by rkramer62.

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Sears House No. 115

It’s cliché to say, “Everything that’s old is new again,” but boy if it isn’t true sometimes. I recently unearthed a monograph from 1942 about the conflict between urban and rural land uses, and a number of sections read like they were written yesterday.

George Wehrwein, the author of the monograph and a well respected land economist in his time, speaks with a voice that sounds distinctly modern. He assails unguided development as “suburban slums.” He points out farmland’s unfortunate role in absorbing willy-nilly growth. He mentions the more than 2,000 cities that, even in 1942, were utterly dependent on automobiles—“these cities have no street cars or buses of any type.” Even in that austere time, the beginnings of the automobile’s coming golden age were evident.

While the automobile and the “modern highway” were accelerating the pace of suburbanization, they didn’t start the trend—streetcars and interurban lines were initially responsible. “Almost as soon as railways became established, industries began to ‘decentralize’ by seeking locations in the suburban areas,” Wehrwein writes. While both trains and automobiles drove decentralization, they invaded rural spaces in distinctly different ways. Trains left a pattern of hub-and-spoke development, drawing some industries far out of the metropolis while leaving closer yet less accessible land under the plow. Automobiles allowed this decentralization to diffuse across the landscape even further while also invading the interstitial spaces left by train-focused development. “As a result, cities have not merely expanded, they have ‘exploded,’ ” he wrote.

Cars and highways spread development more evenly across the landscape, but much of the growth came at the expense of valuable farmland, something that clearly rankled the economist. Large tracts of land weren’t developed immediately, leaving empty lots set amidst trafficless roads, both of which became financial burdens on the local government. In his paper, Wehrwein condemns speculators that drove such slapdash development and rails against weak rural governments that did little to check them. He wasn’t universally panning the suburbs, but he was dismayed at what he saw as a waste of land and resources.

If Wehrwein’s lamentations sound distinctly modern, then so too do his solutions. He calls for large scale regional planning in his paper and advocates granting counties the power to guide development in unincorporated areas. Thanks to his earlier efforts, that experiment had already begun on in a few places. Twenty-five of Wisconsin’s 72 counties had zoning laws, and the state of California granted local authorities power to do the same. But Wehrwein also realized that granting authority does not ensure a desired outcome. “Mere power does not carry with it the desire, courage, or the wisdom necessary to make for a well planned rural-urban region.”

Source:

Wehrwein, G. (1942). The Rural-Urban Fringe Economic Geography, 18 (3) DOI: 10.2307/141123

Image in the public domain.

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Crowded sidewalk in New York City

There’s an unwritten rule followed by nearly all city dwellers—never make eye contact. If you attempt to do so, your glance will be met with utter disregard. You do not exist, other than being an object to avoid. I learned this the hard way. Upon moving to San Francisco from Minnesota—the friendliest of all possible places—I would attempt to make eye contact with strangers on the street out of courtesy. In Minnesota, this is commonplace. There, my glances were often met with a polite smile or a courteous “hello.” In San Francisco—even on streets that were anything but crowded—they were ignored with complete indifference.

Imagine, then, my surprise when I learned of San Francisco’s reputation as a friendly city. If San Francisco is considered friendly, I thought, then I’m steering clear of New York. I mused that such indifference to others must be an artifact of city life. That’s not to say there aren’t friendly people there—it’s true that San Franciscans are a generally genial bunch once you get them off the sidewalk, as are the New Yorkers I’ve met and nearly every other person from a big city. But when I’m in a small town, things sure do feel different. Walking down the street is no longer a sterile affair. It’s no family reunion, but it is degrees warmer than in cities. Still, my own experiences weren’t enough to convince me that this could be a universal trend.

Luckily, my hunch was proved correct the other day by a study which compared the rates of eye contact among people in central Philadelphia, suburban Bryn Mawr, and rural Parkesburg. The study’s authors parked two college students—a guy and a girl—outside a post office and a store in each location for two hours. The students counted the number of people who made eye contact and if anyone said “hello,” “how are you,” or the like. Lo and behold, rural Parkesburg held true to the small town stereotype. Between 70 and 80 percent of passersby glanced at the stationary students in the Parkesburg, while just 10 to 20 percent did in Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr’s pedestrians fell predictably in the middle, with around 40 to 50 percent making eye contact.

The rural types were also much more likely to say something to the strangers. One quarter of people in Parkesburg opened their mouths in greeting, while just three percent did for Bryn Mawr and Philadelphia combined. (The city center was by far the least friendly—only one person said something to each person at both the post office and the store.) In addition, everyone who did say something did make eye contact.

The study’s authors contemplated a few possible explanations for why the city dwellers were so hesitant to make eye contact. They favored the sensory overload hypothesis—that people in big cities are surrounded by too many people, noises, and other distractions—though they also speculated that city folk may fear strangers more or that small town people may be more curious about strangers. They also touched on the idea that city people are more hurried than either suburban or small town people. This notion has been covered both before and since by a number of different researchers. In general, people in larger cities do tend to walk faster, so there may be some truth to this.

Whatever the reason, I admit I exhaled a slight sigh of relief when I discovered that science confirmed my suspicions. San Franciscans, New Yorkers, Londoners—no matter how friendly they are underneath, suffer the same aversion to eye contact as other big cities. Small towns do feel friendlier.

Sources:

Newman, J., & McCauley, C. (1977). Eye Contact with Strangers in City, Suburb, and Small Town Environment and Behavior, 9 (4), 547-558 DOI: 10.1177/001391657794006

Bornstein, M., & Bornstein, H. (1976). The pace of life Nature, 259 (5544), 557-559 DOI: 10.1038/259557a0

Bornstein, M. (1979). The Pace of Life: Revisited International Journal of Psychology, 14 (1), 83-90 DOI: 10.1080/00207597908246715

Wirtz, P., & Ries, G. (1992). The Pace of Life – Reanalysed: Why Does Walking Speed of Pedestrians Correlate With City Size? Behaviour, 123 (1), 77-83 DOI: 10.1163/156853992X00129

Photo by Susan NYC.

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