Archive for the ‘Books / articles / other reading’ Category

Here’s a nice way to measure your neighborhood: Do you have ten interesting places?

I’ve just begun The Great Neighborhood Book: A Do-it-Yourself Guide to Placemaking by Jay Walljasper — a concise and uplifting guide to making a neighborhood not only worth living in, but worth envying.  (I have added it to my “Further reading” page.)  Like me, Walljasper envisions a neighborhood as more than a geographic region: it is a place for society, commerce, and beauty.  It is a place where people have regular business and see each other often.  It is “owned” by the locals.

In the introduction, he suggests an exercise in “zooming in” (my words).  First, consider your region: write down the ten most important places you go, places you recommend to visitors.  Then, zooming in, consider your city, and write down the ten most important places there — like a park or a neighborhood.  Then,

“Zoom in and think about one of these places and try to write down the smaller places that make up the place.  For example, if you named the main street as an important place, whate are the little places on that street where you enjoy spending time?  You can shop there, of course, but if your main street is truly a good place, you can also sit outside on a bench and talk to your neighbors, get a cup of coffee nearby, and enjoy the passing scene.” (p. 4)

Over lunch, I decided to try this with my own neighborhood.  What were the ten most interesting places within walking distance of my house?

First, a note about the above question.  I stand firmly by the assertion that a neighborhood’s boundaries are limited by walking distance: you may be able to walk farther than the edge of your neighborhood, but if a place is too far to walk it’s not in your neighborhood.  Also, “walking distance” is a fuzzy idea.  Researchers on pedestrian behavior have found that most people are happy to walk places within five minutes; farther than that and they start choosing to drive, postpone their trip, or not go at all.  Obviously, it reflects average, aggregate behavior, not the behavior of every individual.  If we adhere strictly to this, a neighborhood (as a place you walk) will be no larger than a circle one half-mile in diameter: five minutes from center to edge.  However, I’m willing to stretch this — if for no reason other than that Fairbanks is mostly not built that way, and I should cut us a little slack.

So, what were the most interesting places within walking distance of my house?  I could think of only five:


Interesting places (green, yellow) near my house (in the yellow oval). Original image courtesy of Google Maps.

  • Noel Wien Library
  • Seoul Gate (Korean restaurant)
  • Arctic Bowl (Bowling alley)
  • Chena River, especially the waterfront by Lathrop Street
  • Denali Elementary School (where my kids enjoy the playground)

Maybe I could go a little farther and include Gambardella’s or McCafferty’s, maybe the fountain downtown.  My wife suggests Chartreuse, a new clothing store at First and Wickersham.  But those all feel a little out of “my turf” — I don’t feel the same sense of ownership of them and of the streets around them.

In the image at right, note that where I live — near this peculiar triangle bounded by 6th, 8th, and Bonnifield — is about as far as it’s possible to get from all those destinations yet still be roughly “between” them.  And the nearest is an eight-minute walk away (unless you count the Chena River, whose nearest point is only five minutes’ walk).

Eight minutes!  I once looked at a Census map and discovered that my neighborhood was one of the most densely populated in the Fairbanks area.  Why should anybody living in a densely populated neighborhood have to walk eight minutes to reach the nearest point of interest — especially when most people won’t leave their houses on foot for anything over five minutes away?  People need reasons to walk: the pleasure of fresh air is not enough.  If we have so few reasons to walk around our neighborhood, how are we going to meet our neighbors? and how are we to become neighborly?

So, Fairbanksans: tell me about your neighborhoods.  Can you walk to ten interesting places?  And what are they?


Read Full Post »

I’ve just finished a book that leaves me troubled over the future of civic engagement in the United States — and puzzled over whether it’s even worth worrying about.

Cover for "The Big Sort" by Bill Bishop Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) has one central thesis: since the mid-1970s, Americans have been voluntarily sorting themselves, physically and socially, into like-minded communities.  Members of these communities have an increasingly difficult time reaching any consensus or common understanding with those of different opinion, and it has rendered our politics ever more rancorous and ineffective.

Exhibit “A” for Bishop is a pair of electoral maps, from 1976 and 2004, that break down the presidential popular votes for those years by county.  But, instead of two categories (Republican and Democrat), he uses three: (1) Republican landslide victory (20 or more percentage points), (2) Democratic landslide victory, and (3) competitive race (within 20 points).

On a national level, the popular vote was very evenly split in both elections.  But the big difference is that, in 1976, the United States was full of competitive counties.  In 2004, competitive counties were few and far between: almost every county was a place where the electorate was overwhelmingly of one opinion or another.

Not only that, but 2004 saw far fewer places with Democratic landslides than with Republican landslides.  Since the races were close on a national level, that means that those few places with Democratic landslides had a tremendous concentration of population.  Democrats, largely, have moved to the cities, while Republicans have moved to the suburbs, exurbs, and farmland.  (The pattern is ubiquitous, but not universal: in some places, Democrats prefer the suburbs.)

Bishop finds that we have segregated ourselves not only by counties, but by cities and even by neighborhoods.  And not only by place, but by churches and other civic organizations.  If we are, say, Methodists, we no longer simply attend our local Methodist church; instead, we drive to the gay-friendly (or gun-friendly) Methodist church across town, where we feel at home because the people are just like us.  Rather than belong to broad-based civic groups like the Loyal Order of Moose, we are far more likely to join issue-specific groups like the NRA or the ACLU — where we can find easy consensus and be uncompromising in our goals.

One positive side of this is that, among our groups of sameness, we’re much better able to agree on goals and work together to meet them.  With such a high degree of comfort, we’re able to make more strong connections with people.  The down side of this, of course, is that so many of the decisions our society has to make — on a city, county, state, or national level — involve working with groups not like us, and, if “they” are just as polarized and uncompromising on their principles as “we” are, then the lot of us will have not only a hard time agreeing on what actions to take, but a hard time just agreeing on what the basic issues are.

As Bishop points out, we usually don’t cluster ourselves this way out of some conscious desire to eliminate difference from our lives.  We do it because the community we’re considering moving to just “feels right” — maybe we like the wide, open spaces between people’s houses, or the bustle of activity in the downtown, or the availability of public transit, or the friendly people we meet.  It just turns out that, when we select a place for a good “feel”, we’re unconsciously selecting it for its politics.

I don’t know what to think about this.  On one hand, it saddens me, because it signals a collapse in the potential of civic discourse.  It heralds the extinction of a sense of the common good.  And that means, ultimately, a loss of cohesion in our states and in our country.

On the other hand, I want to live in a community where buses and light rail are valued, where people appreciate public space and civic art, and the vision of the good life includes meeting your neighbors regularly on the street.  As much as I love Fairbanks, I get tired of feeling like some kind of pervert for thinking private goods should carry a high premium when they infringe on public goods.  I get tired of the emotional struggle: God, do I have to tell these people again why the Steese-Johansen shopping complex is a civic monstrosity? I yearn to go someplace where they’ve already come around, where it’s easy — don’t we all?

Well, since Americans are so mobile, most of us really have that chance.  And what should stop us?  The sense of some abstract “greater good”?  That seems like a 300-million-player game of the prisoner’s dilemma: Maybe society will be better off if we all stay put and work out our differences, but, since everybody else is relocating, wouldn’t I be a sucker not to do the same?

Against the backdrop of mass migration and communities of increasing like-mindedness, what possible argument could you make to keep people where they are?  Why should they?

Read Full Post »

A couple of days ago, I voiced a little suspicion about the many new “social software” devices and applications that make forming connections so easy.  Today I want to amend that.

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), an exploration of the ways new technology allows us to form groups without the conventional barriers of distance, resources, or management.  I suspected that, when people can make online connections that seem to satisfy their needs and that are low cost (in time and money), they will more often forgo local, face-to-face connections (and group activity) that have a higher cost in time and interpersonal friction.

Well, the very next thing I read from Here Comes Everybody was a chapter about Meetup.com, a name that should be familiar to anybody who followed the 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean.

Inspired by Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), a modern classic on America’s loss of social capital, three men created an online tool to help people increase the number of their local connections.  They realized that people had difficulty making face-to-face, interpersonal connections in part because of suburbanization (greater distance) and the two-earner household norm (less time).  They assumed that people would not be content with new online “communities” — so they created Meetup.com.  It allows people to find others of similar interest locally.  People need only to sign up and enter a few interests, and they can see others of similar interest within a certain radius.  Once a Meetup group is established, Meetup.com can easily send e-mails to members about future meetings.

As Shirky points out, most groups fail: they never reach critical mass.  Fortunately, the ease of Meetup.com has made the transaction costs of trying to form new groups practically nil.  As a result, people make more attempts, and many find success.

There are currently 13 Meetup groups in Fairbanks.  The 74 Ron Paul supporters seem to be doing well, though I feel a little sorry for the two people in the singles group, especially for the one who attended last Saturday’s mixer.

I registered at Meetup.com with one of my interests and found that there’s someone else in the area with the same interest — unfortunately, his posted photo reminds me too much of the inappropriate yoga guy, so I’m a little wary of meeting him.  Shame on me for having such a prejudice: what’s called “bridging” social capital is built by spending time with people not of your in-group.  However, people will have prejudice — so why not just omit the stinking photo and give them a better chance to meet you?

Anyway, while there certainly are those who forgo the presence of flesh-and-blood human beings in order to spend more time “living” online, Shirky gives me hope that, for most people, such an existence isn’t enough.  Dispite their bizarrely strong streak of individualism, Fairbanksans seems to have a real propensity for civic engagement.  I have to believe that the new social software and tools will not isolate us, but bring us closer together.  We’re that kind of people.

Read Full Post »

It finally got cold enough in Fairbanks — three degrees Fahrenheit this morning — that I decided to forego riding my bike to work and to take the bus instead. Truth be told, I don’t mind the cold or the dark so much as all the damned dressing and undressing. Lazy, I guess.

Riding the bus this morning gave me the pleasure of reading for twenty-five minutes on the way to work, something I haven’t done since April. (Readers may recall that I extolled this virtue of bus-ridership in June.) Right now I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (New York: Penguin, 2008), in which the author considers the new kinds of social action made possible by computer (and specifically Internet) technology. For example, Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit”, is minimally managed (though Shirky makes it clear that it is managed). Yet it amounts to an encyclopedia of vast scope and variety — and usually improving quality — because of the existence of countless volunteers whose contributions range from small to great, and who are motivated largely by good will. (Ego also plays a role.)

Shirky observes that political and social actions are easier to coordinate now because of the tools available. It’s not that the desire to form political and social groups was absent before, but potential participants were always constrained by the cost. “What cost?” you ask. Well, the cost of printing, for one. Before the printing press, anyone in the West who was not a scribe worked pretty much on a word-of-mouth basis. After the press’s invention, written knowledge could be spread much farther and much faster, but that power was still restricted to those who owned a press. Now, with e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, wikis, and blogs, transmission of information has become accessible to all. Not only that, but the previous publication model — even with e-mail — was “one to many” communication; that is, one person (or an organized collective) could push a message out to a single person or to the masses. Now, however, we have the chance for “many to many” communication: blogs and wikis allow a limitless number of people to contribute to a given conversation.

Another cost Shirky discusses is the time and human effort required for social action. Consider that, twenty years ago, if you saw an article in the newspaper you thought friends might be interested in and you wanted to share it, you would have to:

  1. possibly cut the article out,
  2. get to a photocopy machine and print enough copies to send to everyone,
  3. put each copy in an envelope, perhaps with an explanatory note (which you remembered to write ahead of time and copy also, right?),
  4. seal, stamp, and address each one, and
  5. drop the lot in a mailbox.

Then, if any of your friends wished to share the article, they would have to do the same. None of these steps is laborious, but together they amounted to enough work that most of the time we were inclined not to bother.

Today, most U.S. newspapers are online. Not only can their content be cut and pasted into an e-mail, but the newspapers themselves usually have gadgets already in place on the page to allow you to share the story in a number of ways. (The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner offers readers the chance to print the story, e-mail the story, leave comments about the story, and share the story with your choice of Digg, Delicious, Facebook, Mixx, Reddit, and StumbleUpon.) Or, you could just link to the story and post an excerpt on your blog.

Online tools exist not only to share information, but to organize participants into groups of common interest. While these tools still require managers at the head, middle managers — and they are legion in the face-to-face world — have been nearly cut out of online organizations. Collective action is much easier now, because the costs in equipment and time have been drastically reduced. If you wish to join a common-interest group, or if you wish to form one yourself, nothing is stopping you.

That’s where I wonder if there’s a dark side.

If nothing, not even time, stops you from joining or forming a new interest group — if all the costs have been removed — then what is the incentive to continue working with the existing, often difficult, community that you already have? Yes, yes, the incentive is supposed to be that you get some kind of reward from all your negotiation and all the time you’ve spent together. But how many of us regularly embrace something more difficult with more abstract benefits when we could have something less difficult that seems to meet our needs? For example, if sex were free, easy, and without consequence (as I believe most “free love” practitioners have found it is not), how many of us would embrace the more difficult task of building stable families?

If we are always perfectly free to choose those with whom we interact, or to create our own groups if our exact desires are not met, then aren’t we more likely to spend time with online “communities” that we could have spent working out difficulties in our local communities, in the face-to-face world?

Read Full Post »

As you may know, I’ve been reading Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. (In fact, I’ve been reading it for months. Now that I’ve started biking to and from work rather than riding the bus, it’s taking me longer. But I’m near the end.) It’s full of delightful passages. In lieu of a real review, I’ll give you some:

One of the most laughably erroneous characterizations of contemporary American society is that it is a “convenience culture.” Convenience is a persistent theme in our lives and in advertising media only because there is such a crying need for it. But only by confusing trivial conveniences with essential ones could we delude ourselves. In a genuinely convenient culture, the necessities of life are close by one’s dwelling. They are within easy walking distance. In a convenience culture, one’s European guests would not remark, as ours do, “My God, you have to get in the car for everything!”

(p. 287)

The more that class of people who used to provide community leadership turn their back on community, the worse things “public” become, with people finding more and more cause to retreat from them if only they can afford to do so. The rejection of responsibility for facilities all are meant to share and, beyond that, the identification of the “good life” as an escape from common Americans, may well be the system flaw that can cause the collapse of the American experiment. What was it Lincoln said about a house divided against itself?

(p. 222)

Some time ago, at one of those holiday gatherings of the clan, a relative was describing to me the problems with the teenagers in his community. The community in question had grown up around new mining technology and didn’t have any places for kids to hang out that older traditions supply elsewhere. The man complained that the youth of the community were a “bunch of ingrates.” They did not appreciate the special hangout that had recently been constructed for them.

After listing to his lament, I asked him two questions: Was the place right smack in the center of town–right in the middle of things? And, “Do the adults go there, too?” The answer in both instances was no. The place was “especially” for the youngsters and nobody wanted such a place right in the middle of town. As in so many cases nowadays involving both the very old and the young, the desire is to sent them aside. The old accept their lot more gracefully. The young resent their undeserved shunning by the community, and they have ways of showing it.

(p. 114)

An unsuitable habitat fuels the desire to escape it. Private acreage, offering as much “splendid isolation” as one can afford, looks doubly good when viewed against the deteriorated condition of the public domain. But will an unsuitable human habitat also, eventually, fuel the desire to change it?

(p. 285)

By the way, I’ve now added The Great Good Place to my “Further reading” page.

Read Full Post »