Archive for the ‘Suburbs’ Category

A couple of weeks ago, in a comment to my post “Home insecurity system“, Brian wrote,

On the other hand, I haven’t had a shooting in my neighborhood in the ‘burbs….. ever. You have shootings, assaults, and assorted nonsense in yours THAT NEVER EVEN MAKES THE NEWSPAPER. Would you go to Weeks Field after dark, unarmed?

I said I’d try to respond within a week.  Well, best laid plans and all that…

Now, I’m only guessing that Brian’s point (or part of it) was that the City of Fairbanks proper suffers from more crime than outlying areas, and that that is one of the reasons people flee the central city.  Another point might have been that the crime rate is a good and reasonable reason to live out of town with plenty of space between you and your nearest neighbors.  I think he was saying in part that the city really is a good place to live, and that it’s the fault of the police department for not cracking down on more of the drug-related crime.

Anyway, my perception is similar to Brian’s — that the city is a little more dangerous.  More drug-related crimes, more drunks, more violence.  I wonder if it’s really true?

There are a couple of ways to consider it, I guess.  That there be more crime per square mile seems almost inevitable.  According to the State’s online community database, Fairbanks’s population density in 2007 was 967 people per square mile, while the entire Fairbanks North Star Borough’s was just over 13.  (If you measure just the Borough outside Fairbanks, the population density was less than 9 per square mile.)

I realize that large parts of the Borough are uninhabited and that the actual population density closer to Fairbanks and North Pole is higher, but you get the point: where you have fewer people, you probably have less perception of crime.  Of course, the crime rate per capita might be just the same or higher — but we’d have a hard time knowing, since so much goes on in the outskirts that we just can’t see.  Are people shooting guns off their porch? singing loudly and drunkenly? getting into ass-kicking fist-fights with their neighbors? dealing crystal meth out of their cabins?  Maybe.  Hard to say.  (I recognize that there’s a place for research here, but I don’t have time to call the Fairbanks Police Department or the Alaska State Troopers, or to pore over the public safety reports in the News-Miner.)

Of course, shooting a gun off your porch probably isn’t a crime if you live on twenty acres off the Old Nenana Highway.  Nor is being a noisy drunk.  A lot of the things that are crimes in the city are public nuisances or crimes against public safety — and there is no “public” when you’re in the middle of a vast plot of land.

So let’s just talk about the things that are against the law no matter where you are: physical assault, dealing illicit drugs, cooking meth, arson… you get the idea.  Let’s assume — and I’ll stress again that this is the proper place for research — that the rate of, say, violent crimes per capita (not per square mile) actually is greater within the city.  Why would that be?

I’ll hazard a guess based on the common wisdom, and pepper it with a few facts. I suspect that crime has more to do with the income of the perpetrators than with their urbanity.  According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (a division of the U.S. Department of Justice), the Homicide Offending Rates per 100,000 Population in 2005 (the latest year available) was more than 7 1/2 times higher for Blacks than it was for Whites.  In no way do I think that race is the determining factor.  In this case, I’m using race as a proxy for income, since the BJS seems not to track criminal offenders by income.  According to the Census Bureau (PDF link), Black families in 2005 earned 60% of what White families earned.

Well, people in the City of Fairbanks earn significantly less than those of the Fairbanks North Star Borough as a whole.  According to the aforementioned online community database, the per-capita income in the City is 92% of that in the Borough; and both the median household income and the median family income in the City is 83% of those in the Borough.  If we can use race as a proxy for income or for other factors relevant to the crime rate, then the online database should help us: a look at the three largest racial categories in both jurisdictions shows that Blacks constitute 11.2% of the City population, Natives 13.3%, and Whites 66.7%.  In the Borough, those numbers are 5.9%, 9.9%, and 77.8%.  In short, the Borough outside the City is significantly richer and whiter — and far poorer in traditionally disadvantaged minorities — than the City itself.

This only makes sense to me — the income part, at least — since (1) people who live far from town tend to buy larger plots of land (in fact, I think there’s a minimum size based on how near you can put two septic tanks), and (2) living out of town while still depending on it requires owning and maintaining an automobile, which isn’t cheap.

So, insomuch as race and income (taken as aggregates, not on an individual basis) are predictors of an area’s crime rate, we could expect the City of Fairbanks to have a higher crime rate than its suburban and rural surroundings.

If avoiding crime is a major factor in your choice of place to live, moving out of town looks like the smart move: go where there are fewer people and where your neighbors are richer and whiter.

Does that sound repugnant to anybody else?

For me, the residential breakdown by income raises the question: Why have we created a city that those with the greatest means feel it necessary to leave?  And, as always: What do we need to change to make a city worth embracing rather than abandoning?


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My wife, my daughters, and I went a couple of weekends ago to a birthday party for another friend’s child — and it’s got me all down about the place where I live.

We live in the upper floor of a two-story house downtown, renting out the basement apartment.  Not counting our deck or the front and rear arctic entryways, our floor is about 800 square feet.  We have two bedrooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and a combined living room and dining room.  I sometimes wish we had more space inside for the kids to run around, but we do alright in the space we have.  I suppose any larger would just mean more cleaning.

Our friends, on the other hand, live on a large lot off of Farmers Loop Road.  Their children’s bedroom is smaller than our children’s, but they also have a playroom downstairs which I did not see.  Their bedroom is smaller than ours, but they have an adjoining office where they can work or read in solitude.  And their yard — well, their land, really — is plentiful, large enough that they can pretend they don’t have neighbors and their children (and guest children) have a large playground adjacent to the house.

Part of me is envious.  We have a fenced yard, but it’s on the small side.  We have two playgrounds within 15-20 minutes’ walk and Weeks Field a bit closer, but nothing visible from our windows.  Other than to the yard, we cannot simply send the kids outside to play, since (1) there are far too many cars on our street, and (2) there are far too few people on the street to watch out for the safety of neighboring children.  Our suburban friends, on the other hand, can send their kids out to play with minimal supervision at any time.

Of course, the drawback of living on some large plot of land is that little but the wilderness would be within walking distance.  We would be more isolated and more reliant on our car.  And we would further de-populate the city, thus providing incentives for businesses to locate outside the urban core, in turn giving city dwellers still less reason to want to live there.

We have here an exercise in game theory — a branch of mathematics that anlalyzes behavior in circumstances where an individual’s best choice depends on the choices of others.  If many people choose to live in the city, then they are more likely to try to make the city a pleasant place to live.  The city’s appeal will increase, and more people will choose to live there.  (At some point, the crowding starts to make the city less appealing, so that negative feedback brings the system into equilibrium.)

On the other hand, if too few people are convinced that cities are worthwhile (which seems to be the case in Fairbanks), then little effort will go into their good planning.  They will in fact become worse places, due largely to the neglect of those who would live there but instead just drive through.

If city-dwellers had real clout, we would have a grocery store in every neighborhood and frequent buses to take us all over.  Instead, we have all major retail on the periphery of town, where it is convenient to suburbanites, and a lack of meaningful destinations in the core.  Instead, we have suburban flight that leaves city-dwellers not only without the benefit of a 20-acre wood around them, but without the joys that a good city can bring: shopping, restaurants, public space, and enjoyable street life.

I wonder sometimes if Fairbanks is tipped irredemably toward the suburban lifestyle, tipped so much that high-quality city life has no chance at emerging.  I think about our choice to live downtown and wonder sometimes if we are the chumps.

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In an online comment regarding a letter to the editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, I suggested that the suburban living so common in Fairbanks was a contributor to traffic problems. In response, another reader asked, “Fairbanks has suburbs?”

The question is not whether we have distinct suburbs, as Renton is to Seattle, or Aurora to Chicago. It’s whether — and how much — we have suburban sprawl. And what would we have instead?

I’ve just finished re-reading Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and others. The authors define suburbia in a section called “The five components of sprawl”, which I’d like to quote liberally here. (If the authors or publisher believe that this falls outside of fair use, they should contact me.)

Housing subdivisions, also called clusters and pods. These places consist only of residences. They are sometimes called villages, towns, and neighborhoods by their developers, which is misleading, since those terms denote places which are not exclusively residential and which provide an experiential richness not available in a housing tract….

Shopping centers, also called strip centers, shopping malls, and big-box retail. These are places exclusively for shopping. They come in every size, from the Quick Mart on the corner to the Mall of America, but they are all places to which one is unlikely to walk…

Office parks and business parks. These are places only for work. Derived from the modernist architectural vision of the building standing free in the park, the contemporary office park is usually made of boxes in parking lots….

Civic institutions. The fourth component of suburbia is public buildings: the town halls, churches, schools, and other places where people gather for communication and culture. In traditional neighborhoods, these buildings often serve as neighborhood focal points, but in suburbia they take an altered form: large and infrequent, generally unadorned owing to limited funding, surrounded by parking, and located nowhere in particular….

Roadways. The fifth component of sprawl consists of the miles of pavement that are necessary to connect the other four disassociated components. Since each piece of suburbia serves only one type of activity, and since daily life involves a wide variety of activities, the residents of suburbia spend an unprecedented amount of time and money moving from one place to the next. Since most of this motion takes place in singly occupied automobiles, even a sparsely populated area can generate the traffic of a much larger traditional town.

This definition of suburban sprawl is in my mind today because an article in today’s News-Miner announced that “Borough officials are bringing in consultants to help them overhaul laws governing the design and construction of residential subdivisions.”

I appreciate that these laws are probably written to protect future residents from the danger of building on wetlands and thawing permafrost. But haven’t we already lost the battle when we’ve stopped talking about the development of neighborhoods?. When we’re framing our questions in the language of design policies that isolate people from most of their daily needs, drive up the costs of infrastructure, and erode civic life?

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