Two books by Kevin Kruse on suburban swimming pools, prayer breakfasts, and the origins of 20th century American conservatism

While this year’s news seems to show the modern American conservative strategies seeming to unravel, I recently read two books by Kevin Kruse showing the origins of those strategies. White Flight shows the origins of low-tax, privatized, drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub platform in the racial politics of metro Atlanta. One Nation Under God focuses on the origins of the alliance between big business and the religious right.

tenx

In the post-WW2 era, Atlanta marketed itself as “the city too busy to hate” but behind the scenes, Atlanta neighborhoods were torn by racial strife.  Black residents were confined to a limited number of over-crowded and rundown neighborhoods, and those with the means sought more space and better living conditions.  After residential segregation was struck down by the courts, local customs maintained segregation.

White residents pledged not to sell to black people, and real estate agents were bound by their code of “ethics” not to sell from white to black. If a few black people moved into a white area, the locals resisted, often with violence. Then, real estate sales people took advantage of white fear of black neighbors to encourage rapid migration, where the neighborhood shifted rapidly from all-white to all-black.    To block change, city leaders took steps such as routing freeways and expressways between black and white neighborhoods, and zoning for industrial uses between white and black areas, but these tactics did not work for long.   Kruse tells these stories with rich and plentiful detail as the patterns repeated in neighborhood after neighborhood.

Over time, the political rhetoric of white residents fighting change shifted.  Earlier on, opponents to change were explicitly racist, with participation from Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, and overtly terrorist tactics. Later on, whites fighting change moderated the rhetoric, and portrayed their opposition to sharing space with black people in terms of American values “freedom of association” and “free enterprise”. The message of “free enterprise” played a stronger role after civil rights protests to integrate hotels and restaurants broke down the traditional alliance between the white business establishment and black leaders who collaborated to promote peaceful prosperity at the cost of acceptance of segregation.

The concepts of integrated neighborhoods and integrated public facilities were inconceivable for white residents who bitterly resented the loss of “their” parks, swimming pools, public golf courses and libraries. Rather than sharing facilities, or “wasting” public funds on black “intruders”, white leaders choose to set up separate, private, segregated facilities, and often to close or de-fund the facilities now used by black people.

The more “moderate” and “reasonable” messages of freedom of assembly and free enterprise helped leaders with these messages start to win elections and gain political power.  The strategy of privatization became easier as white residents increasingly moved outside city boundaries to suburbs.  These suburban communities nurtured new generations of political leaders, including Newt Gingrich from white suburban Cobb County, suburban Texans Tom Delay and Dick Army, whose philosophies of low taxation and small government were optimized for areas that were ethnically and economically segregated.

The way Kruse painstakingly documents the hyperlocal politics of white resentment in Atlanta neighborhoods, and draws connections between the specifics of local politics and broader demographic and strategic trends is depressing and deeply insightful.  There’s more to the book, especially the connections between Atlanta’s integration battles and national policy change; I recommend it highly.

In God We Trust also uncovers surprising connections to the origins of modern American conservatism; in this case the alliance between big business and the religious right.  Kruse started with the hypothesis that the civic religious movement behind the addition of God to the pledge of allegiance derived from opposition to godless communism during the cold war.  But Kruse traces the flowering of civic religion in the 50s to something earlier and stranger.

In the midst of the great depression, business magnates organized in the National Association of Manufacturers sought to fend off the compelling messages of the “social gospel” supporting the labor movement and the relief policies of the New Deal.  So they initiated a campaign of “Spiritual Mobilization”, organizing and bankrolling with a network of Protestant religious leaders, to promote “Christian libertarian” message equating faith, liberty, and free enterprise.

The movement downplayed Jesus’ messages about caring for the poor and downtrodden, and focused instead on doctrine of individual success as salvation.  The movement encouraged resistance to corrupting policies such as unemployment insurance and social security pensions for the elderly; which fostered laziness, servility to authority, and tyrannical taxation; adherents were urged to “Declare that freedom is more important to you than ‘security’ or ‘survival.’  Billy Graham expressed the philosophy clearly in ‘51 when he claimed that “If [the US] hoped to survive, it needed to embrace once again “the rugged individualism that Christ brought” to mankind.

Over time, the movement melded emerging disciplines of advertising and mass media, with American traditions of Protestant revival movements, contributing to a flowering of religious participation after the second world war, when the share of Americans who belonged to a church or synagogue suddenly grew from 43% early 1910 to 49% in 1940 to 57% in 1950 and then peaking at 69 percent at the end of the decade.

The movement found a powerful champion in Dwight Eisenhower, who integrated the theme of spiritual revival into his campaign, incorporated religious leaders and pageantry into his inauguration, and institutionalized “prayer breakfasts” for his cabinet, including the business leaders who had bankrolled the campaign for piety.   During this era, “under God” was added to the pledge of allegiance, and In God We Trust, which had been on coins for a century, was added to stamps and paper currency as well.  Religious books and movies topped the charts, including best sellers like The Robe and The Silver Chalice and blockbuster movies, notably the Ten Commandments, along with less well remembered hits including  Samson and Delilah and Solomon and Sheba. Cecil B Demille contributed his media skills in the Spiritual Mobilization campaign; his foundation took corporate donations to advertise against labor unions. DeMille enthusiastically supported a promotional campaign for the Ten Commandments movie, organized by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, to install Ten Commandments monuments at courthouses and city halls across the country.

Unfortunately for the business sponsors, however, Eisenhower showed little appetite for rolling back the popular social benefits of the New Deal.  The tighter links between public piety, religious conservatism, and economic conservatism kicked in later.   Kruse draws direct connections between the disappointment of southern conservatives at the passage of Johnson-era civil rights laws, and the passionate but ultimately unsuccessful campaigns for school prayer.

Stronger ties among between religious and social conservatism were established with Nixon’s outreach to the socially conservative “silent majority”.  With rich detail, Kruse recounts how Nixon administration coordinated an “Honor America Day” revival rally, with attractions including Billy Graham, Pat Boone, Bob Hope, and Lawrence Welk. etc to reinforce a socially and racially conservative constituency and image, even as Viet Nam protests and other radical activism savaged and mocked the Nixon’s efforts at preserving pious 50s-style facade.  Links to social and economically conservative policies grew stronger with Ronald Reagan’s affiliation with religious broadcasters Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.

Unlike White Flight, where the connections between detailed descriptions of local racial and class conflicts, and their ideological trappings were drawn closely and persuasively, there are larger gaps in the observations and arguments of In God We Trust.   Many reviewers make a strong case that the origins of American civil religion extend back through earlier waves of political discourse and religious revivalism.

Kruse’s narrative stitches together a seemingly endless procession of sermons, rallies, and pageants with lofty and pious sentiments, showing the evolution of conservative civic religious expression .  What is not shown, though, in most of the book, are the contrasting religious beliefs and expressions that the conservatives are opposing.  At the beginning, we don’t hear the voices of the social gospel supporting New Deal policies.  In the chapters on the 50s and 60s, we don’t hear the voices of black churches championing civil rights and economic opportunities for people who are marginalized and dispossessed.

In the material moving into the 70s and 80s, we don’t hear the voices of religious liberals championing social and environmental reforms. The chapter on school prayer is the only one that provides a richer picture of contrasts and conflicts between religious perspectives, in this case between elite support of separation between church and state, and the populist, lay-led support for continued and increased presence of religion in schools and public life.

Also seemingly missing – though I don’t know the material even vaguely well enough to offer a critique – are nuances about the class structures and trends within Christian conservatism.   The book starts with corporate moguls recruiting elite Protestant leaders to construct religious support for conservative economic policies.  Somewhere along the line, more grass roots evangelical communities became engaged in a conservative political alliance, and issues of opposition to abortion and gay rights became classic conservative campaign fodder in addition to with low taxes and deregulation. At some point, “God, guns, gays” along with coded racism became wedge issues that separated white working class voters from liberal economic policies. I strongly suspect there is a story about the connections between class and the evolution of uses of religion in US politics.  I don’t know enough to guess at the story, and Kruse doesn’t tell it.

Still, In God We Trust has interesting and insightful observations about how conservative religion came to play a role in modern US politics, including strange phenomena such as prayer breakfasts and “God Bless America” signoffs to presidential speeches.

It is especially interesting to read these books at a time when the powerful political philosophies and alliances described in these books seem to be in the process of unravelling.  White Flight describes the rise of exclusive and privatized white suburbia, but more recently we’ve been starting to see the suburbanization of poverty, as people with economic choices return to urban areas.   Segments of the white middle class, who benefited from the suburbanization of jobs in the late 20th century, are now struggling economically, and some have been turning away from corporate conservatism toward Trumpist nativist populism.

Demographically, people of color are playing a growing role in the electorate, and white rural/suburban racism is becoming a less electorally effective strategy.  The connections among the corporate elite, religious conservatives, and white suburbanites are fraying. Time will tell how coalitions re-form.

The Invention of Nature and Crimes Against Nature: Two books on the Romantic view of Nature

“Nature” is far from natural; two recent books explore the development of romantic ideas about nature, and the consequences of policies based on these ideas. The Invention of Nature is a biography by Andrea Wulf that traces the career of Alexander von Humboldt, the German scholar who shaped ideas about nature, and influenced the people who created conservation policies. Crimes against Nature, by Karl Jacoby is a social history that explores the consequences of romantic ideas of nature, as they were implemented in the conservation policies of state and national parks.

Humboldt had been nearly forgotten in the English speaking world, but has been the world’s premier celebrity scientist in his day.

Humboldt was close friends with Goethe, and the ideas of German romanticism infused his work. As a romantic who saw feeling as a primary means of understanding, Humboldt didn’t see science as an intellectual activity separate from emotion. ‘Nature must be experienced through feeling,’ Humboldt wrote to Goethe, insisting that those who wanted to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks ‘will never get close to it’. His writing for scientific and popular audiences was full of lyrical and ecstatic passages inspired by natural beauty.

In Views of Nature, for example, Humboldt invited the reader to “follow me gladly into the thickets of the forest, into the immeasurable steppes, and out upon the spine of the Andes range … In the mountains is freedom!” Humboldt’s romantic portrayals of nature also included visuals in the tradition of romantic landscapes, intended to convey the feelings of awe and wonder.
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Wulf’s biography traces how Humboldt’s poetic style of communication about nature influenced writers including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Thoreau and many other writers whose enchanted descriptions fill the Nature writing sections of bookstores and Amazon.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L'Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland. Vues des Cordillieres et Monumens des Peuples Indigenes de L’Amerique. Paris, 1810.

Humboldt’s verbal and visual images of nature were shaped by the Romantic ideas that the natural world conveyed spiritual experiences in characteristic places, following the philosophical and esthetic concept of “the sublime.” In the essay, the Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon writes that, Although God might, of course, choose to show Himself anywhere, He would most often be found in those vast, powerful landscapes where one could not help feeling insignificant and being reminded of one’s own mortality. Where were these sublime places? The eighteenth century catalog of their locations feels very familiar, for we still see and value landscapes as it taught us to do. God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset….

Humboldt’s ground-breaking scientific work was based on detailed measurements taken while travelling the world. His innovations and discoveries included the the idea of isothermal zones of vegetation and climate zones that span the globe at similar latitudes, and observation of connections between similar species on continents that were separated by (what was later shown to be) plate tectonics. His measurements and analysis also demonstrated the decrease in intensity of Earth’s magnetic field from the poles to the equator.

elevation climate zones

Humboldt’s work pioneered key concepts of environmental science. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of colonial plantations at Lake Valencia in Venezuela in 1800, Humboldt became the first scientist to talk about the environmental harm wreaked by plantation monoculture and deforestation, which washed away soil and left the land barren. “Humboldt was the first to explain the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect, as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of Humboldt’s environmental science was the concept that things in nature – plants and animals, atmosphere and oceans – are all connected – and methodical measurement and analysis can reveal these connections.

Humboldt’s assessment of the costs of plantation agriculture included the human depredation of slavery, as well as the risks of monoculture to human health and survival in addition to the risks to the natural environment. In Cuba, Humboldt observed the social costs of plantation monoculture. Humboldt observed how cash crops produced by plantations had replaced ‘those vegetables which supply nourishment’. “Cuba produced not much other than sugar, which meant that without imports from other colonies, Humboldt said, ‘the island would starve’. This was a recipe for dependency and injustice. Similarly, the inhabitants of the region around Cumaná cultivated so much sugar and indigo that they were forced to buy food from abroad which they could easily have grown themselves. Monoculture and cash crops did not create a happy society, Humboldt said. What was needed was subsistence farming, based on edible crops and variety such as bananas, quinoa, corn and potatoes.”

Wulf traces the influence of Humboldt’s environmental ideas on George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat who traveled through Middle East while serving as ambassador to Turkey in the 1850s. Marsh and observed barren conditions in places that had formerly been the breadbasket of civilization, and ascribed the desert conditions to deforestation, which had led to erosion and the collapse of agriculture. When he returned to the states, Marsh wrote Man and Nature, an early work of ecology that talked about how manufacturing and industrial agriculture were ruining the environment, with barren soil and torrential floods caused by deforestation and monoculture, and lifeless lakes and rivers polluted by industrial waste.

Marsh viewed the role of humans as uniformly negative. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” declared Marsh. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.
Man and Nature discussed the damage being caused in the present day by deforestation in the Adirondacks, and the work was influential in the creation of a New York State forest preserve in the 1880s and 90s. Man and Nature also influenced people including John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, who played crucial roles in creating the United States’ National Park system and other policies to protect America’s forests.

John Muir was another disciple of Humboldt who found inspiration in nature, evangelized the spiritual value of connection to wilderness, and gathered a movement of lovers of nature to drive the founding of the national parks to protect pristine wild lands. Muir thought wild places as separate from human settlement, and preached the spiritual benefits of finding reprieve from urban life. As Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

The pristine wilderness that Muir admired had long been inhabited by people; it eventually took the introduction of the US army, with enthusiastic support from Muir to expel the people.
Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation , by Karl Jacoby, covers the impact on local residents, Native and European-American, when national parks were established.

Before the Grand Canyon National Park was established, Havasupai Native Americans grew crops in a nearby canyon during the summer, and hunted on the ledge in the winter. The book describes with how the Havasupai became impoverished by forced exile from their hunting area when the laws of the National Park banned hunting; the traditional subsistence hunting was recast as poaching. As the people suffered from hunger, Havasupai men resorted to manual labor in the park to make a living. Far from being a “trackless wilderness”, the lands in the National Parks were criss-crossed with trails created by Native Americans for hunting and seasonal migrations. Jacoby reports how, as day laborers, Havasupai men earned cash by paving the trails for tourists.

One of the main reasons that Native Americans were excluded from national parks was to prevent forest fires. It turns out that the fires that had regularly been set by people was valuable for the plants and animals in the ecosystem as well. Jacoby writes, “Native Americans used fire for multiple purposes: to keep down underbrush, facilitating travel; to rid camping areas of insect pests; and to aid in hunting. … By burning underbrush and dead wood, low-level fires of this sort also helped to recycle nutrients into the soil and create a mosaic of plant communities at varying levels of succession, raising the level of vegetational diversity and opening up a variety of ecological niches for wildlife. The benefits of fire were therefore not only short-term (facilitating travel and the taking of game) but long-term as well (maintaining a higher population of wildlife than would have occurred otherwise)

The chapter in “Crimes against Nature” focusing on the state park in the Adirondacks describes the impact of the park’s regulations on a small population of about 16,000 European Americans who engaged in subsistence hunting, fishing, and cut small amounts of timber for fuel and small buildings.

While Marsh’s generally had a negative view about the impact of humans on the natural world, he believed that the subsistence farmers in the Adirondacks (and other places) were particularly damaging. Jacoby writes “In keeping with his Whig political beliefs, Marsh viewed these members of the lower classes as lacking the foresight and expertise necessary to be wise stewards of the natural world”. With this perspective, the rules of the park system were designed to prohibit subsistence-level hunting and wood-gathering. While there are examples of large populations engaged in subsistence foraging and agriculture causing deforestation and environmental damage, it’s not clear that the 16,000 small-scale farmers in the Adirondacks were actually causing damage, in contrast to large-scale timber harvesting. (A weakness of the book is that it does not bring evidence.)

In fact, the motivations for creating state and national parks weren’t to protect ecosystems the way that we may think of them today. The congressional report in support of the creation of Yellowstone as a National Park described the benefits of the park to be:

  • First. As a region containing some of the chief natural wonders of the world.
  • Second. As the largest of the forest reserves.
  • Third. As the greatest existing game preserve.

The hunters for whom the “game” was being protected were upper class men who hunted for recreation. Hunting was prohibited within the boundaries of Yellowstone and Yosemite, permitted in game season in the Adirondack state park, and the local subsistence hunters who could not feed their families on the allowance and seasons permitted by the rules became guides for upper-class recreational hunting and fishing. People who hunted for subsistence when they needed food- native or european – were considered poachers.

And the views of the great wonders of the world were being protected for tourists who could afford taking vacations to appreciate the sublime beauty of nature, as understood through the Romantic esthetic. In The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronon explains that One has only to think of the sites that Americans chose for their first national parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Rainier, Zion—to realize that virtually all of them fit one or more of these categories.

Cronon continues… “Less sublime landscapes simply did not appear worthy of such protection; not until the 1940s, for instance, would the first swamp be honored, in Everglades National Park, and to this day there is no national park in the grasslands.” Natural parks were not primarily created to protect biodiversity (or estuaries would have been early parks), nor was they created to protect distinctive ecosystems (or grasslands would have been protected). They were created to protect the views that triggered emotional experiences that were valued by the Romantic perceptions of nature held by Humboldt and his followers.

Travelling to remote and “exotic” places was seen as an integral aspect to experiencing nature. Humboldt, Marsh, and Muir sought experiences of nature in travels to South America, the Middle East, and the American West. The creation of parks brought these experiences “downmarket”, from upper-class travellers (Humboldt, Marsh) who had the financial resources and social connections to explore distant places, or extraordinary individuals (John Muir) who were willing to make social and financial sacrifices to travel, to prosperous middle class people who had resources to take time off and travel for vacation.

While Humboldt himself saw the suffering caused by with plantation slavery and monoculture, valued mixed agriculture, and (rare for his time), respected native cultures, the romantic ideals as they passed down through generation tended to see nature as separate from humanity, and to dismiss the people actually living in places understood as “natural.” Crimes Against Nature makes the case that when nature is seen as “somewhere else” that is free of people – the vision of a connected system leaves out people – this perception misreads most places that are actually inhabited, creates harm to the rural people living subsistence lifestyles, and doesn’t necessarily help the natural environment.

In “the Trouble With Wilderness” William Cronon also concludes that if we believe that wilderness is a remote place for urban people to visit as tourists, this belief prevents us from finding solutions to environmental problems that are inherent in our urban industrial civilization.

“If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so—if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings, save perhaps as contemplative sojourners enjoying their leisurely reverie in God’s natural cathedral—then also by definition it can offer no solution to the environmental and other problems that confront us. To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.

Humboldt’s romantic vision helped him pioneer an environmental science in which everything in nature is connected. Jacoby and Cronon show that when rural and urban people are omitted from the vision of nature, the ecosystem including humans, are at greater risk.

Streetcar Suburbs by Sam Bass Warner

I recently read the the classic social history, Streetcar Suburbs by Sam Bass Warner, which analyzes the transportation, financial, architectural, and social trends that created streetcar suburbs, with close attention to three neighborhoods outside of downtown Boston – Roxbury, West Roxbury, and Dorchester. The book covers how these places developed with fantastic and fascinating attention to detail, but provides unreliable explanations as to why.

The economic driver of suburban expansion was the rapid growth of a middle class including upwardly mobile Irish, Italian, Jewish and other immigrant groups. The emergence of horse-drawn railcars after 1850 enabled practical commutes to expand from a two-mile walking distance up to four miles from the city center. Electrification starting in the late 1880s enabled streetcars to run twice as fast and carry three times the number of passengers, extending the commute radius out 6 miles from the city center, supporting population growth in metro Boston from two hundred thousand to over a million residents.

horse-drawn streetcar

In a pattern that has been revived in recent decades, much of the streetcar development was fueled by real estate speculation. Henry Whitney extended the West End line to Brookline to promote new residential development on Beacon Street, and similarly, Dorchester’s streetcar lines funded by speculators in Dorchester real estate.

My favorite tidbit about the relationships between transportation infrastructure and social structure is that central middle class workers – store-owners, lawyers, prosperous salesmen and contractors – had jobs in the center of town, so their commuting needs were met by linear streetcar lines with frequent service (10 minutes or less) that radiated out from downtown Boston. But the lower middle class included building trademen who worked at different sites around the city, and skilled craftsmen such as piano makers, printers, and furniture makers who worked at different shops depending on workload. So linear extensions of streetcar lines were not enough not meet their needs; artisans preferred housing in locations served by infill crosstown lines that allowed them to get to work sites without heading all the way downtown and back out again. Meanwhile, upper middle class workers preferred homes on larger parcels, often in further out neighborhoods, up to 10 or 15 miles from the city center, connected by faster heavy rail.

The book’s characterization of workers as male is deliberate. The book defines a middle class lifestyle as the ability to support a family on one income (assumed to be the husband’s). In the families of the lower middle class artisans were there women who worked outside the home? Possibly, but the book assumes all commuters are men. Also, the book describes the neighborhood layout exclusively in terms of the needs of male commuters; if the needs of women managers of households came into play in home design and the layout of retail areas, the book is silent on that topic.

The streetcar suburban neighborhoods were built with highly uniform design, even though they were developed by many individual builders. Unlike earlier major development initiatives in Beacon Hill, the Back Bay and South End, which were built by big syndicates with the ability to raise the capital to raze hills and fill marshes, the development of 22,000 residential buildings in the three streetcar suburbs covered in the book was conducted by 9,000 independent small developers. Because small developers were taking high relative risks for their budgets, they tended to make conservative decisions to create housing that would most easily find buyers.

Although the descriptions of how the streetcar suburbs grew are robust and compelling, the reasons why they grew the way they did are less persuasive. Warner documents that the creation of suburb and the attraction of suburban life was motivated by ideals of country living. Increasingly prosperous middle class residents flocked to new suburban neighborhoods in flight away from the dark, cramped, unhealthy confines of tenement living, believing that that a more rural setting, emulating the country housing of English gentry, with green space, light, and air would be better for happiness, health and wholesome morals.

upper middle class suburban street

Warner does not merely report on the ideal of garden living, which has been documented by other historians and sociologists; he strongly agrees with with the ideal. He praises the homes of better-off residents, with detached designs, bigger lots, and larger lawns and gardens, as closer to the rural ideal, and disapproves of the more compact designs developed for more price-sensitive households. In Warner’s estimation, “cramped suburban streets of three-deckers stand as an ugly joke against their models: picturesque houses set on garden lots.”

lower middle class

A theme of the book is that economic segregation evolved on its own, through the bottom-up preferences of people choosing to live near others in similar economic circumstances, well before explicit zoning baked these divisions into local land use ordinances about lot size, setbacks, and residential density. And yet, what strikes a reader familiar with neighborhoods shaped by decades of zoning is the level of diversity that emerged in the early streetcar suburbs, where single family homes, duplexes, triplexes, and small apartments might be intermixed on a block and in a neighborhood.

The three towns covered by the book added 22,500 residential buildings, including 12,000 single family homes, 6,000 two-family, 4,000 3-family, and 500 larger units, housing 167,000 people. Only half of the housing units were single family, and different housing types were not infrequently adjacent to each other, quite different from pattern set by 20th century zoning, in which single family homes are carefully separated from multi-family dwellings.

However, Warner portrays diversity of housing stock as a negative, and as exceptions to a beneficial uniformity. Warner describes a pattern on arterials in Dorchester where stores were built with apartments above, and narrow-three-deckers were built in spaces between older, larger houses. But this pattern is described as, “cramped quarters clearly out of harmony with the style of living in the rest of the new suburban houses.” The apartments above housing were an unfortunate departure from the “uniform character of central Dorchester [which] was achieved through the action of common understanding within the society as to what constituted appropriate kinds of buildings for different areas and different incomes.”

rental above retail

In Roxbury, infill development providing housing for people at a range of incomes and households is portrayed as a harbinger of decline. “Here during the thirty years from 1870 to 1900 cheap singles, doubles, and three-deckers had been jammed onto tiny lots…. There were cheap and expensive three-deckers, ample two-families that looked somewhat like expensive singles, and tiny single houses that were as cheap per family as most multiple dwellings… Most of the merits of the earlier form of building [larger houses on larger lots] were buried, and a potential area of rapid deterioration was established.”

Warner explains that the streetcar suburban neighborhood layout, with all of the housing facing the street edges, was a result of buyer preferences for the prestige of a streetfront location, and aversion to more alley entrances which allowed for both smaller and larger homes. That explanation comes across as tautological, given the persistence of alley housing in Chicago, Philadelphia, Vancouver, and other cities. Describing the housing types in Boston’s streetcar suburbs as the inevitable result of status preference begs the question of why alley housing was beneath the dignity of Boston area residents and acceptable elsewhere.

Warner equates building uniformity with social stability. Describing Central Dorchester which was first built with larger homes, Warner writes that the district has been able to maintain its homogeneity and to survive later shifts in its population without more than partial encroachment by cheap housing forms. [If there was enough room for infill with smaller units], “many of the middle class families who first built there would probably have abandoned it and the character of the section would have shifted rapidly.”

In the streetcar suburbs portrayed in the book, neighborhoods were developed incrementally, and as neighborhoods filled in, the remaining smaller and odd-sized parcels were often developed with more modest and multi-family homes. The advent of smaller-unit housing types in a neighborhood is portrayed as the first sign of an inevitable decline. Warner asserts, without persuasive evidence, that the smaller housing types accelerated decline since they were immune to being upgraded, unlike larger homes that are easier to rehab and subdivide. This assumption would come as a surprise to waves of gentrifiers who have been rehabilitating streetcar-era older homes, including small houses, duplexes and triples, for decades now.

While the book gives careful attention to the emerging forms of mortgage financing which allowed a growing number of middle class buyers to afford homes, it gives no consideration to the availability (or lack) of financing to upgrade older properties. Mortgages during the streetcar suburb era covered in the book were dominated by small private investors, were issued in relative short terms from one to ten years; were often renewed several times, and didn’t yet allow the borrower to be paying down principal along with interest from the start. This financial structure enabled about a quarter of the population to own homes, but entailed substantial risks for buyer and lender, issues that were later alleviated with government-protected 30 year amortizing mortgages.

Warner takes for granted that housing stock would would “decline” with age as styles fell out of fashion, and describes presence of mixed housing types as a factor that accelerated decline. However, as reported by the later classic on the growth of US suburbs Crabgrass Frontier, US government financial policy deliberately restricted financing to rehabilitate older homes. In the 20th century, neighborhoods occupied by African-American and other perceived undesirable ethnic groups were subject to “redlining.” In redlined areas, mainstream mortgages became unavailable, and so it was nearly impossible to purchase existing homes with a financial model conducive to maintaining the buildings in good condition. In the second edition published in 1978, Warner mentions that some of the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester had become occupied by African-Americans as part of the ethnic succession, and also that some areas had become delapidated slums. Without mention of redlining, Warner’s explanation that neighborhoods were set on a path of inevitable decline by the advent of excessively urban and diverse housing types is not persuasive.

Supporting the narrative of the inevitable decline of streetcar suburb neighborhoods, Warner takes for granted that people who have choices about where to live would prefer brand new, larger homes, in land opened up for development by transportation improvements, including, after the time period covered in the book – automobiles and highways. “Successive transportation changes have made possible the shifting of fashions in middle class house lots from the first doubling of the walking city’s row-house lots, to the parcels of 3,000-6,000 square feet common in the streetcar suburbs, to the present fashion of quarter- to full-acre, and even larger, lots.” Inevitably, better off residents would leave when area became less fashionable, and move further away. Streetcar Suburbs was first published in 1962, and revised in 1978; in an era where US suburban expansion continued with no slowdown in sight.

Warner does give some attention to the phenomenon that about half the population was left out of the housing improvements available to upwardly mobile middle class residents. The book talks briefly about several initiatives to provide charity housing with private funding.

The author writes about how middle class residents came to fear urban neighborhoods as dens of crime, but does not consider how urban crime zones were actively created; through deliberate concentration of zones of extra-legal commercial activity.

In the conclusion of the book, Warner points out some weaknesses associated with the trend toward suburbanization, but this explanation also comes across as a just-so story. Warner points out that the streetcar suburbs had were designed with commercial areas in strips along transit corridors, and clustered around intersection crossroads. The streetcar suburbs had many churches, synagogues, and ethnic community gathering places, but tended not to have physically coherent town centers. The lack of central public space, argues Warner, contributed to a deficit of social and civic cohesion, and therefore to fragmented governance and lack of ability to solve problems across the metropolitan region.

A more compelling explanation for metropolitan dysfunction is the economic collapse that occurred once industry moved out of the central cities; and the more prosperous residents had already left. When cities had a strong tax base, emerging suburbs sought to be annexed to the larger city which could provide stronger city services. When the city’s tax base imploded, suburban jurisdictions figured they’d be better off independent, and had little motivation to work with other jurisdictions to solve regional problems. The preference for independence was bolstered by the trends toward economic segregation. More prosperous residents chose to live further away from lower-income residents, and to bake the patterns of segregation into laws.

In the time window when Warner lived and wrote, it was common-sense to assume that neighborhoods went out of style and had most of their appeal “used up” after the first-generation that they were occupied, and people with choices would “naturally” move on. By affirming that the large-lot, garden-surrounded suburban estate is the ideal, and describing more compact housing types as a fall from the ideal, Warner misses an alternative interpretation of the form of the streetcar suburb.

From today’s vantage point, streetcar suburbs seem (at least to some including this blogger) like an attractive, alternative urban form. The housing variations that Warner saw as bastardizations and signs of social unravelling can also be seen as welcome tools for healthy age and income diversity. The changing of fashions, which Warner sees as inevitable decline, can be seen alternatively as “filtering” which allows older and currently less fashionable homes to be occupied by lower-income residents. With walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods coming back into favor, some core urban and streetcar suburb neighborhoods are now facing an opposite challenge – an influx of wealthier residents, and escalating prices that create displacement pressures on lower-income residents.

From today’s perspective, we wonder why it’s impossible to build places like the old streetcar suburbs anymore, and see the zoning requirements that make these housing types illegal. In the value judgements underlying its analysis, Streetcar Suburbs sheds light on why those laws were put into place – the density and diversity of housing types that look attractive and socially healthy to today’s urbanists looked ugly and socially harmful to proponents of mid-20th century suburbs.

With the benefit of hindsight, the narrative of the streetcar suburbs no longer appears like one phase of a march of progress toward the next suburban frontier, with better-off residents moving on once resources in a place are used up. That narrative left a lot out to begin with, on topics of class and race, investment and infrastructure. Now, as the attributes of streetcar suburbs are coming back into fashion – our society faces different challenges of how to evolve older neighborhoods in place.

When driverless cars take over

The trouble with Reid Hoffman’s provocative suggestion that human driving ought to be made illegal that once self-driving cars are commercially available is not that it’s a bad idea. The trouble is a technodeterminist vision of the future of electric cars, taking for granted the existing, comprehensive set of policies that currently makes driving essential for most people for most trips in the US.

When automobiles became mainstream in mid-20th century America, they were seen as bringing freedom, speed and mobility. To take best advantage of the new technology, we set up rules for our streets and new places to facilitate free, fast movement of cars. Zoning rules defined peaceful, quiet neighborhoods with curvy, disconnected streets and easy drive and a long walk from the wide roads that allowed speedy car access to shopping, schools and workplaces. The wide roads eliminated obstacles to speedy travel, such as trees and crossing pedestrians; parking requirements ensured enough room for everyone even at crowded periods.

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The hopeful planners did not foresee that funnelling the entire working population into arterials and freeways in the morning and afternoon, would cause intractable traffic jams. Policy makers did not imagine that requiring car trips for all the needs of daily life would contribute to sedentary lifestyles, chronic health problems and environmental pollution. Though policy makers were quite deliberate about the intentions of financing and road-building policies to promote greenfield growth, giving some people unprecedented access to sunny, landscaped estates, and escape from the dark, dangerous, crowded cities. (see: Crabgrass Frontier, Dead End)

Full of optimism, we did not see that this new technology – private cars – had a few disadvantages compared to 2 million year old technology – walking on two feet – that used regularly keeps us physically and mentally healthy (now we have new wearable, networked technology to remind us to use the 2 million year old system). The new automobile technology also had some disadvantages compared to century-old transit technology, which can fit many more people at crowded travel periods.

New technology reminds us to use old technology

New technology reminds us to use old technology

The new technology was valuable, but we overused it, and we shaped our world using a set of policies to require the new technology even where it is not the best tool for the job. Technology creates new options, but societies makes choices about the ways the technology will be used.

A similar technodetermism is influencing conversations about self-driving cars. Eager proponents note that autonomous vehicles will be able to platoon and take up less space on freeways and arterials – but cars still take up more space than buses and trains, as Jarrett Walker reminds us. Instead, autonomous vehicles could provide handy first/last mile access to high-capacity transit.

Vehicle geometry

Vehicle geometry

Proponents note that autonomous vehicles will park themselves, so they won’t require as much real estate devoted to parking. Yes, but if all the autonomous vehicles are used at the same time, they will still be underused at the same time.   And when we cluster places with different functions, it becomes easier for people to use ancient technology for many trips and for socializing, freeing up even more space.

Supporters foresee that driverless cars will popularize living in the furthest exurbs, since commuters will be able to relax, work, and even use an exercycle while the car drives itself. And this may be preferable for some people; it’s not clear why society should prefer and promote commuting 50 miles with a bicycle enclosed in a shell of metal, rather than 5 miles on cycle tracks under a big blue roof.

The last 60 years have contributed plenty of evidence about ways that the overuse of cars has led to unintended consequences. Autonomous vehicles may well become much safer than notoriously lethal human drivers, such that it will be beneficial to ban driving.

It may be a great idea from a public-health perspective. It would surely be huge benefit to providers of self-driving cars, because it would shorten the decade-plus long cycle to turn over the installed base of cars (the average car on the road is 11 years old.)

Hoffman predicts “An asphalt utopia is on the horizon. ”  The proponents of horseless carriages also envisioned an asphalt utopia, and rewrote the rules to promote that utopia.  While we are doing thought experiments about this potentially transformative policy change, it would be helpful to think through the interlocking set of policies that were created when cars were new, and to consider how we want to use the next generation of new technology, rather than assuming that the new technology will be used for everyone and everything, because it is new.

Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism

Benjamin Ross’ new book, Dead End, offers a solid, insightful, and readable analysis of the structural causes of suburban sprawl, and the reasons why it remains difficult to build in urban areas despite renewed preference for urban living. Also, the book elaborates a hypothesis that status-seeking is the primary source of suburban “not in my backyard” opposition to infill development. I wrestle with this hypothesis – there is some truth in it, but it also weaknesses as an explanation and as the basis for a theory of change.

Suburban landscape

Ross traces the history of suburban land use policy – in which landowners have a high level of control over what their neighbors may choose to do – to the private covenants of socialist communes in the 19th century. The controls were institutionalized into zoning, when early suburban developments commercialized the form. The idealization of the countryside, the separation of residences from commerce, and the disdain for the city, also came from the idealistic, progressive reformers, a story that is also told in other histories of suburbia such as Crabgrass Frontier.

Early suburban developments were very clear about their intention to create high class, exclusive places, and these goals were explicitly institutionalized in law. The objective of keeping multi-family housing away from single family housing, in order to avoid degrading the single family housing, was explicitly cited in the Supreme Court decision on a case about Euclid, Ohio, which institutionalized what became known as “Euclidean Zoning. “…

…the development of detached house sections is greatly retarded by the coming of apartment houses… in such sections very often the apartment house is a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district. Moreover, the coming of one apartment house is followed by others, interfering by their height and bulk with the free circulation of air and monopolizing the rays of the sun which otherwise would fall upon smaller homes…

When policies were instituted to encourage home ownership during the Depression and after WW2, the mortgage criteria favored the suburban format, giving higher ratings to places that are new, that do not have a connected street grid, that have front lawns. Mortgage underwriting required cities to have zoning that segregated by density, keeping single family homes away from multi-family buildings, and that segregated by race. Dead End touches relatively briefly on the role played by race; this reading list compiled by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has extensive coverage of the role that racism played in housing policy.

Ross does a good job of explaining how the familiar forms of residentialist neighborhood organizing got started with revolts against urban freeways and “urban renewal” projects which tore down functional working class neighborhoods, separated neighborhoods with barriers and safety hazards, and replaced lively streets with suburban style towers in parks. (In the San Francisco Bay Area, another crucible that forged the culture of neighborhood organizing was the environment activism which preserved San Francisco Bay and the hills from development.) In New York, the movement for historic preservation sparked by the failed battle to save Penn Station created legal tools that were later repurposed to spare ordinary old buildings and prevent change.

These neighborhood organizing movements rightly viewed unchecked development and top down planning designed to prevent and ignore public input as the enemy. This perspective calcified into perpetual opposition to neighborhood change. Existing residents have great power to reject or minimize new development that would reduce the prestige of the neighborhood, such as adding multi-family residences, improving sidewalks, striping bike lanes, building on parking lots, and other infringements on the ideal single-family vehicle-centric suburban design.

Problem of status

The book provides robust documentation for its argument that early suburbs were designed to promote class exclusivity and social status, and as well as for the trends whereby classic suburban forms were mass-marketed in the form of Levittowns and the proliferation of tract housing, designed to keep out the working class and poor.

Ross elaborates on the hypothesis that the desire to protect social status explains the growth and persistence of neighborhood organizing to keep out new development. The book plainly uses the term “Nimby” to describe the politically organized homeowning neighbors who organize again and again to preserve the neighborhood form and stop proposed change.

According the the book’s hypothesis, nimbies are primarily motivated by desire to maintain and increase social status, however it would be politically unacceptable to be upfront about this motivation, so nimbies use other arguments – environmentalism, historical preservation, traffic – as fig leaves to hide their naked self-interest. Not only do nimbies attempt to conceal their true motives from policymakers and fellow citizens, they can successfully conceal their self-interested motives even from themselves.

The pretexts used to hide nimby self-interest can include seemingly progressive goals; in some cities, nimbies ally with progressives to fight the displacement of low-income neighbors – and in so doing, they successfully protect the form of their existing neighborhood. Ross argues that “the striving to keep out people of lower status could be portrayed as a revolt of the oppressed people against rapacious capitalists, status-seeking disguised a cloak of self-righteous egalitarianism.”

There are several problems with these allegations of hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and false consciousness. While there may be some truth to the allegations, accusing an opponent of disingenuousness leaves no opening for compromise solutions. For example, neighbors have successfully fought potential development on the large parking lots at the Ashby BART station, in order to preserve the parking lot as precious “open space.” This may be driven in part a desire to keep out riffraff who would live in apartment buildings on the parking lot land. But when discussing the topic on Twitter, a friend brought up the weekend flea market held on the parking lot that community members want to preserve. Is there some other way to save the flea market? If you think of people in a public discussions as hypocrites deluded by false consciousness, you can’t make any progress addressing reasonable concerns.

There is another problem with diagnosing one’s political opponents as disingenuous and self-deluded. It opens the door to psychological diagnoses from the other side. For example, millennials prefer urban areas and less driving because they are fundamentally immature. But clearly they will grow out of preferring urban living, so there is no point to addressing their interests. Urbanists may think they value cultural diversity, but are actually just foodie snobs at odds with the values of real Americans..

Another challenge with the use of status as an all-purpose explanation for the passion behind nimbyism is that the definition of status itself changes over time, and is different among different subcultures. Ross does a good job of describing a change in the concept of status after the 60s, when ideas about exclusivity conveying status were replaced in some circles with the concept of authenticity, so that it becomes important to protect the neighborhood coffee shop and keep out Starbucks, for example.

So, what happens when the concept of status changes? While some suburbanites fear and disdain proposed 4-6 story midrise buildings as incipient slum towers, there are also snob urbanites with a corresponding disdain for places outside the big cities, San Franciscans who wouldn’t be caught dead in Mountain View or Redwood City. Isn’t it also true that some people who want to live in the city are also doing so for reasons of perceived status?

According to a progressive/bohemian esthetic, status can mean preserving the downscale. A local flea market is seen as a sign of authentic local culture and community-building, though it is a venue for the sale of unfashionable, dingy and discarded objects. Preserving the status of the downscale, from this perspective, can mean opposing changes that would benefit the health, happiness, and safety of local residents, such as like street trees and bike lanes.

Arguing that people organize to oppose change because they believe that what they have already is of higher value than the proposed new things is ultimately tautological. People value what they value.

Fear of traffic

There are other explanations to nimbyism that suggest alternative theories of change. The fear of traffic is one of the most common reasons given for nimby opposition to development. Until the implementation of a California law passed last year traffic as measured by motorist delay at intersections has been considered a negative environmental impact under the California environmental quality law, so opposing increase in motor vehicle delay can be an effective strategy in fighting new buildings.

Ross considers concerns about traffic to be entirely disingenuous, a transparent pretext for opposing the building of new buildings to protect the status of the neighborhood. The problem is that in car-centric suburban areas that are starting to retrofit to become more walkable and transit-friendly, the legacy policies governing street design and vehicle parking actually encourage people to drive. Unless changes are made to policies and incentives, people who are afraid of excess traffic and parking overflow are likely to be correct. The policies and incentives need to change, so that fewer people are likely to drive in the new buildings. Persuading people that it is possible to reduce driving may help reduce fear of new buildings.

So an alternative to the hypothesis about status and false consciousness is a hypothesis that many people have expectations shaped by a lifetime experience and belief in the value of easy driving everywhere. Billions of dollars in advertising over decades have fostered a perception that cars mean freedom, long after the experience of driving had become a traffic-clogged annoyance.

Vehement efforts to protect low density development can reflect an attempt to return to a bygone era when it was possible to easily drive everywhere with Beach Boys on the radio. But traffic congestion is a mathematical inevitability when many people live in places with low density, separated uses, and traffic is funneled into the same few arterials and freeways. Where streets are designed for the primary purpose of moving cars quickly, it is unsafe to bike and walk, and even more people drive. If you provide plentiful enough parking for everyone to find a convenient space at every destination, then the result is vast amounts of land used for parking, making places ugly and unpleasant for walking.

There is a major shift in the works, partly cultural and partly generational – toward preferring a lifestyle with less driving, which means places that are more walkable, with destinations closer together, which is to say places with more density. But many people, especially baby boomers who grew up in the old paradigm, still expect and value the ability to drive everywhere. Time is on the side of walkability. In the community where I live, many of the fiercest opponents to improvements for walking and bicycling won’t be driving in a decade and will be demanding better facilities for walking and public transit.

Changing perceptions of status

If one considers that the concept of status is somewhat malleable, and that many studies show there is pent-up demand for walkable places, different strategies for change come to mind. In places on the Peninsula that have successfully re-urbanized downtown areas, there was extensive public involvement exploring design options, and a majority of people ultimately preferred the reinvention of downtowns into more pedestrian friendly places with more workers and residents, more amenities within walking distance, and less driving per person.

It may be possible to shift perceptions about the value of less driving. Events such as Bike to Shop day help people do more of the tasks of everyday life without a car, and appreciate changes that help people swap car trips for bike trips. When people depend on cars for fewer trips, and value easy bicycling and walking access, they may appreciate having buildings closer together, with less parking supply. Because the shift in values is in part generational, baby boomers who see their children leading carfree or carlite lifestyles have lightbulb moments when they realize that more people are starting to prefer more compact and walkable places – even if the baby boomers are still preferring to drive.

bike to shop day

It may even be possible for people who say they value diversity to take actions to protect and increase diversity, by making decisions to add housing of various types in a community. The strategy here is to build on values that people say they have, and to build a working majority of people with those values.

Rail as a silver bullet

The book’s focus on status feeds into a theory of change that rail is key to the transformation of suburban places. Ross was a leader of Maryland’s decades-long initiative to build the Purple Line, a proposed 16 mile light rail extension to the Washington metro system.

In much of American culture, trains are perceived as high status, and buses as low status. This hierarchy is seen by some transit advocates as a reason to promote rail, since rail’s higher social status makes it more popular. Meanwhile, others with a more populist perspective see buses as the preferred transportation of lower income users, and therefore want to promote bus transportation instead.

I think that using a status argument for either bus or rail is misguided. Rail and buses are different technologies that are have different strengths and weaknesses. For the Purple Line, which is forecast to carry 74,000 passengers when it starts operation in 2020, buses won’t provide enough capacity, which Ross correctly points out. For other routes where the transit usage is robust but not that high (such as the VTA 22/522 with ~13,000 average weekday riders) a bus rapid transit system might be a better fit. Either rail or bus can be used for backbone rapid transit service depending on capacity needs; while bus service can be used for connecting service to the backbone lines.

Plus, rail systems with poor transit design and land use deliver reduced benefits regardless of the supposed prestige of rail. VTA light rail has been excruciatingly slow for its first decades of existence, was oddly located and took decades to begin to trigger transit oriented development. BART was extended to suburbs, with stations surrounded by vast parking lots. After four decades, the BART station in Union City has recently added is a set of big apartment buildings, a half-mile walk from an inhospitable arterial intersection hosting acres of parking lot-surrounded strip malls. Development near transit, yes, but not nearly a walkable, human-friendly place.

Ross also argues that rail transit will naturally lead to the adoption of complete streets. The natural experiment of BART in the suburban east bay belies the argument that rail transit inevitably creates walkable, bikeable places. BART stations were surrounded by huge parking lots, in the midst of a suburban land use pattern with separated residential and commercial development connected by deadly multi-lane arterial roads. Even now, some East Bay jurisdictions resist street safety improvements that might slow vehicles.

Tactically, the Purple Line advocates were right to advocate rail for the Maryland corridor. Given the local culture and continued effective advocacy, it may well be the case that the Purple Line station areas will be well integrated with nicely walkable transit oriented development with streets that are safe and convenient for walking and bicycling. But that individual case is not necessarily universal. As with East Bay BART and VTA light rail, steel wheels don’t automatically translate into livable communities with safe pleasant streets.

Policy and strategy directions

Ross offers various policy proposals to make it easier to create more urban places, including removing parking requirements, and providing more funding for affordable housing. He proposes strong versions of both of these proposals, wanting to see parking gone altogether, which requires superb transit in order to work. He wants to see greatly increased federal funding for transit, this would require major transformation in national politics, where the R-dominated House votes consistently against transit spending. Given the fact that the greatest demands for affordable housing and transit are in economically booming metros, I suspect that a greater proportion of the investment is going to need to be driven locally.

Ross proposes greater regionalization of land use policy, to counteract the control exerted by homeowners in small suburban jurisdictions. While Maryland does have county-based land use regulation, Ross also reports that this regional structure also promotes slow-moving bureaucracy and sometimes corruption. Even moderately integrated transportation and land use policy in the Bay Area has sparked fierce opposition – time will tell whether the current level of coordination will work over time, and whether the state will provide the missing transit and housing funding to make the goals work, or whether opposition will undermine the plan’s implementation.

Recommendation

I recommend the book for people who are interested in the history and politics of cities and suburbs. Even if you have read other books on the origins of suburbia, you will likely learn from this one. The analysis of the politics of suburban neighborhood opposition to change is provocative, and serves as an interesting starting point to analyze and debate cause for the current state of affairs and theories of change.

Great Good Place: How the decline of walking ruined community (and American bars are too loud)

Just read Ray Oldenburg’s sociology classic “The Great Good Place”, which names and praises the “third places” where people go between home and work. Oldenberg makes the case that these places are essential for people to relax and nurture social connections, and that the rise of auto sprawl and the loss of walkable neighborhoods all but ruined them.

Like Jane Jacobs’ classic work, the core thesis seems powerful and right.  However, the books arguments are highly anecdotal and suffused with credibility-sucking nostalgia; the content on the role of gender and sexuality makes manifest the iffiness of his method.

 

The book describes the neighborhood taverns, beer gardens, cafes, and corner stores where many people used to stop for a while between home and work and spend time with a group of regulars, across class and age boundaries, with relatively low barriers to entry, the beverages as largely an excuse to socialize, and with conversation as the main entertainment.

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London coffee shop

Oldenburg makes devastating arguments about the ways that automotive culture has greatly diminished third places.  Low density, spread out single use zoning puts people outside of walking distance from commercial establishments and gathering places; so there are no “locals” where you’ll run into a regular cast of characters.  Even successful places are patronized by roving groups of known friends, rather than stable sets who can assimilate newcomers.   The corporate chains and malls that displaced local convenience stores, casual restaurants, and other gathering places are focused on efficient turnover of anonymous customers, and don’t provide the time and space for idle conversation.

Without the influence of a patient and hospitable patron, and a stable group who can entertain themselves endlessly with animated conversation over a beer or maybe two, and single sex or family crowd, bars become places for heavy drinking, with loud music, fads for entertainment, and pickup pairing.

Interestingly, Oldenburg’s attention to street life focuses on commercial establishments that extend onto the sidewalk, where people sit, eat, drink and chat.  He does not focus on the semi-public domain of stoops and entrances where residents and proprietors hold court with passersby, which are Jane Jacobs tropes of healthy urban socialization and maintenance of social norms.

Without third places, people do 90% of their drinking and the vast majority of their entertainment within the walls of home; diminishing the mental health benefits that come from a broader social network, and putting excessive pressure on marriages. The age segregation of contemporary life, car-dependence, and pervasive scheduling makes life particularly dull and stressful for suburban youth and teenagers.  The decline in the status and health of street life can be seen in the rise of terms such as “streetwise” meaning aggressive, self-protective and cynical, and the importance of activities at keeping kids off the street.

The depiction of “wholesome” “decent” tavern norms has a fair amount of “no-true-scotsman” about it. The centuries of urban life in which there have been commercial drinking establishments include numerous geographically distributed instances of culturally prevalent alcoholism and alcohol-fueled financially harmful gambling and violence. Prohibition was a mistake, but the temperance movement wasn’t driven by the zeal to ban taverns where men relaxed and chatted for an hour over one or two drinks.

The examples of social leveling, where physicians would spend time talking politics and sports with plumbers, seem real enough, but the book ignores the boundaries of ethnicity, sometimes religion, and especially race that would get the wrong kinds of people violently excluded. Not to mention, Oldenburg’s attraction to third places comes from a particularly situated class perspective – one reason he is so fond of third places is that they are more relaxing than stuffy cocktail parties where one must dress up and be on one’s best behavior, says the college professor who presumably is obligated to attend numerous cocktail parties.

The theorizing about gender is where the anecdotal method is most obviously saturated with cultural perspective.  Oldenburg argues that one important role served by a third place providing is a relaxing single-sex refuge from heterosocial life (although some species of third place, such as the German beer garden, were populated by men, women, and children. The single sex socializing is important, says Oldenburg, for both men and women – various cultures have men only and women only spaces that are important for social life.

While Oldenburg acknowledges a need for female-only space, his language often takes a male perspective, e.g. “customers and their wives.”   The book is replete with cavalier and confident statements about gender, such as “parenting is largely mothering”, “women have more spare time than men”, and “women don’t like snooker,” but unfortunately female guests must be allowed to take a turn.   (I wonder what my female friends who are billiards aficionados think of snooker, which I had barely heard of). The assumptions about the lives of women are particularly class-coded – working class women always worked and never had idle time.

The book’s anecdotes about the disjoint sets of male and female interests are contradictory. One grown woman recalls that her interest in politics was stoked by adult conversations at the local soda fountain.  At a “third place” in the UK, a woman who is passionate about cars is steered away from the men talking about cars to the women, because she will disrupt the natural male bonding around cars, and is best directed toward more feminine subjects of conversation.

 

Oldenburg deplores and bemoans a tendency toward companionate relationships with the growth of the college-educated professional class. “College men started to take their women took their women on hunting, fishing and boating trips” which ruined the ambience of the all male gatherings.  The reason that mixed gatherings are unwelcome is that because with the tension that is necessary for sexual attraction, it is “impossible to relax with the opposite sex”, especially the forced mixing at dinner parties, and even a night out with one’s own spouse.

 

Meanwhile, all-male gatherings have no harmful effects.  “Male groups encourage men to view women as sex objects but not treat them this way,” as we surely know from fraternities and technology conferences.   The interest of women in gaining access to the all-male clubs that are key venues for business and political networking is described as “The blood lust of feminists seeking to invade or destroy.”

 

And, Oldenburg assures us, homosocial bonding has no connection to homosexuality. “Eroticism is almost always absent in all male groups”, and rather, “homosexuality becomes common when male bonding is weak.”   Pause for laughter.

 

Oldenburg’s observations and assessments about gender are full of culturally situated stereotypes, not to mention rampant sexism.  The dominance of dubious assumptions about gender raises questions about other observations in the book.  Unlike the work of, say, Jan Gehl, which is based on meticulous observations of social life in public places, and a long history of design experiments to affect the social life in public spaces, Oldenburg’s book is full of one-off personal observations and retold anecdotes.

 

Because of Oldenburg’s strong opinions and heavily anecdotal methods, I would also wonder about counter examples where car cultures may have created functioning third places – what diners, beaches, and other car-dependent locations still fostered informal socializing with regular participants.  The book is also wholly secular; there may be evidence and arguments about the relative roles of churches and synagogues in fostering regularly attended gatherings that nurture social ties (although Charles Marohn of Strong Towns argues that suburban churches also weaken the third place nature of community events).

Thinking about the book, I wonder whether bike party rides count as effective third places. They’re not daily, but with test rides there are weekly events, they involve casual socializing with people across a range of ethnicity, income, and age, with alcohol etc as social lubricants, and sets of regulars who are open to newcomers. They use suburban people-unfriendly arterial roads and parking lots, and convert them into sociable parades and festivals.
 

Interestingly, a quick Google search shows that in addition to planners, Christian bloggers have apparently taken up consideration of Oldenburg’s work.  Church folk wonder whether religious institutions can provide “third place” style gathering spots, or bring church practices to “third places”, or possibly compete with secular places.

 

Oldenburg himself is dismissive of the ability of online services to play the role of “third places”, and stresses the need for in-person interaction.  However, this perspective neglects the increasingly common interaction of online settings, where people can chitchat and meet virtually through others with similar interests and mutual friends, and in-person gatherings that spring from online discussion.

 

While Oldenburg’s methods are highly qualitative and culturally situated there is some good evidence that Oldenburg got key points measurably right – greatly reduced time spent socializing informally outside of the home; the dramatic increase in the structure of children’s lives and reduction of outdoor self-directed free play.

 

When the book was written in the 90s, Oldenburg writes that the planning profession had paid negligible attention to community spaces.   The government was well established in the business of creating outdoor parks for recreation, but played minimal roles in creating spaces for urban socializing.  (Oldenburg omits discussion of the compulsory and largely disastrous civic and office plazas created in the second half of the the 20th century. William Whyte’s detailed study of the success factors for public plazas in New York City is the exception that proves the rule).

 

Since then, however, the planning and design professions have accelerated study of public places and have started to seek to foster lively public space, and civic participation in the creation of public spaces, on a more regular basis.  The Project for Public Spaces, founded to build on Whyte’s work, has developed a global practice in the field in recent decades, and cites Oldenburg as an inspiration.   Jan Gehl’s firm has been influential in transforming places around the world, including Copenhagen, Melbourne, and New York City.

 

With these practices, the role of the public sector is to foster the places that can foster social interaction. Outdoors, this includes human-scaled plazas with detail fostering social interaction, and sizeable sidewalks taking space back from vehicles.   For indoor spaces, the public sector is starting to play a role in fixing the policies that caused third places to decline – once again allowing mixed use zoning, and walkable densities, so people can live near coffeeshops, restaurants and convenience stores; and changing vehicle parking laws so that driving and parking does not make it unpleasant to stroll by a neighborhood place.

 

The revival of big cities and small city downtowns, and neighborhood design encourages optimism about the opportunity to gradually bring back third places.  As of Oldenburg’s sequel, it didn’t seem like much progress had been made – the Great Good Places he was able to find in a late 90s anthology were , However, the drastic shortage of increasingly popular walkable places is causing gentrification, and raises the risk that until and unless the shortage is filled, the social and civic capital available to people with public places will be less available to lower income people exiled to exurban sprawl.

Ephemeral great good places

Recently read Ray Oldenburg’s “Celebrating the Third Place“, a book of case studies intending to provide instances of the type of “Great Good Place” that he praised in the 1990s classic about “third places” between home and work.   I’d never read the original, and found that it was unavailable for an impulse read on kindle or a nearby library, but the sequel was on Kindle.

“Third places” in Oldenburg’s “Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day” are personally comforting and valuable for social and civic life, according to Oldenburg’s argument as reflected in the sequel.   They provide places for people to socialize outside of racial and class hierarchies.   But they were in deep decline, in an era of suburbanization, with chain stores focused on customer turnover, public spaces minimized and privatized, and people preferring to stay at home with television and videogames, before the internet provided even more attractions to screens indoors.

Great Good Place

The case studies in “Celebrating” include a garden supply store, a couple of bookstores, a record store, several coffee shops and restaurants, a couple of bars, a passport photo shop with a homegrown book club, an open air market. Plus, an essay arguing that prison served as a third place for the author and his fellow inmates.   The chapters are contributed by people involved in the places, describing the atmosphere, staff, customers and community, origins, triumphs and challenges.  And stories about how the connections made at these places enriched participants’ lives.

Out of the places in the book, only a few are still in business after twenty years.  A declining mall in the Seattle area that was rehabbed around surprising concepts of common space, performance art, ethnic communities and branch offices of public services.   A bookstore in a resort community.   A fish taco local chain under new management.

Some of the businesses are in sectors – books, music – that were hit hard by digitization (after all, I got the book on Kindle, and there are no longer local bookstores that would have this sort of older classic in stock).   Most were small businesses depending on the founders; they closed because of hard times, or the founders moved on.   The repurposed mall is still in business; the founder’s kids are apparently taking over the business and adding housing to the mix of uses, which is a good sign of increasing durability?

What does it mean, that this type of place deemed essential for social and civic life is so ephemeral?   The profiled places are mostly independent food service businesses, which are notoriously risky and short-lived.   Chains from the era of the original “Third Place” book – Starbuck’s, Applebees – are still going strong, with institutional management and funding.   Upon reflection, two independent “community institution” cafes near where I live – Borrone in Menlo Park and Coupa in Palo Alto, are established family businesses with multiple family members, and have been going strong since the days of Oldenburg’s books, although I don’t think they would meet the criterion of a third place where people meet folk they don’t already know and build ties.    It’s possible that the book had a selection bias in favor of less stable businesses.   The chapters were provided by voluntary contributions; and perhaps chapters were contributed by proprietors who were seeking marketing help by being included in the book?

Our society and economy provides more solid support for corporate chains than indies; corporations do a somewhat better job of transmitting organizational life past the tenure of founders; multi-generational family businesses are more rare. This has benefits in addition to drawbacks; blood ties aren’t the only ways to get business stability, and children can pursue their own interests rather than being stuck in the family trade.

Perhaps there is a flaw in the romantic concept of an independent business, which has difficulty building stability?  Perhaps there is unappreciated strength in the old-fashioned forms of civic institutions – the Elks and Lions and so on – and the churches and synagogues that provide community spaces across decades and past the tenure of individual leaders.

There are continual cultural ebbs and flows across history; escalated by capitalism but endemic in the evolution of cultures.  Food drink, and types of restaurants; games and other types of  secular socializing all change over time and their places and organizations change. That was one of the fallacies of Robert Putnam’s 1995 essay “Bowling Alone“, which in the same time frame as Oldenburg lamented the loss of civic and social institutions in a suburban and privatized world, but also fallaciously equated the decline of old-fangled associations like bowling leagues and Elks Clubs with an absolute decline of social association.

This is not even to start to engage the questions about the relative benefits and drawbacks of online social networks and their relationships to social capital.

Another question about the ephemeral nature of the “third places” profiled by Oldenburg. Do actual public spaces do a better job of supporting social connections over time than these small and fragile private spaces.   Suburbanization separated people physically, replaced public squares and markets with tightly controlled private malls, and minimized the role of streets in fostering social activities.

Scholars and intellectuals starting with William Whyte and Jane Jacobs, and practitioners including Jan Gehl and the team at Project for Public Spaces created a discipline to study and recreate public spaces that people enjoy and use.  The Open Streets movement started with Ciclovia in the 1970s in Columbia to recapture streets for people.   Places revived by Jan Gehl and his team have been thriving for decades.   The plazas, avenues, and waterfront promenades reinvigorated by these placemaking activities don’t depend on any single business – they benefit from rules that foster (and don’t prohibit) multiple sociable activities in proximity – food carts and trucks, performing artists,  outdoor games.  As public spaces, they foster activities that don’t require money to participate, and don’t have a rigorous turnover requirement to make a profit (although gathering many people together in shifting assortments provides an economic boost).

On reflection good number of the shuttered businesses were physically isolated, in keeping with the suburban and exurban norm. The garden store in Western Mass sat alone on a highway exit; the gym in Atlanta requires people to drive to a place to get exercise; one of the cafes/performance spaces was in a repurposed church in a changing neighborhood (also raising questions about whose sets of social institutions Oldenburg was primed to see).

The “third place” that seemed to be the most well established after 15 years was the semi-public space in the revived Seattle area mall, which has had a changing assortment of businesses over the years, plus common space supporting music, performing arts, outdoor chess, and just hanging out.

So maybe the stability of “third places” depends in no small part on the existence of actual public space, and the flow of a critical mass of people in the transect between public space and highly social private third space?

All of these are questions.  Some of you reading may have more knowledge and more insights, or more questions. Comments are welcome.

For peterme who wants to know whether I recommend the book.  The book itself isn’t great, but raises a lot of interesting questions.  At some point I’ll go read the Oldenburg original.

 

The New Nature of Maps

By the time I got to read the New Nature of Maps, a book of essays on social theory of cartography written before the author’s death in 1991, any shock value it might have had was long gone, but the book  asks some questions that are still relevant for the understanding of maps.   The decades since the essays were written have brought substantial change  in the nature of maps, and some of the author’s speculations have proven prophetic.

Apparently in the 1980s when cartographic scholar JB Harley was writing the essays in the book, it was the norm among academic students of maps to consider the materials that they studies to be objective scientific documents; or if they fell short of that standard, to be evidence of the incomplete development of scientific methods of mapping, or evidence of the distortion, misuse, or mere incompetent assembly of map-like information by propagandists or poorly educated non-professionals.

In a series of essays, Harley applies ideas from postmodern theory – Foucault, Derrida, and other thinkers – to show how maps can be considered historical texts that encode the power relations of the society in which they were produced.

The essays examine the images, forms and margins of maps to reveal these power relations.  The centrality of Jerusalem and the Holy Land in Judeochristian premodern maps; the prominence of the seats of dukes and princes, bishops, archbishops, and abbots in maps of reformation England, with special symbols for the increments of clerical and aristocratic hierarchies, depictions of the growing colonial empires of Europe, with blank spaces for areas uncontrolled by Europeans or censored for purposes of commercial monopoly; and side illustrations demonstrating the inferiority and subjection of local populations; all of these these structures and forms encode the power structures of the societies, they do not merely depict objective facts about the land and seascapes.

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A chilling chapter on maps of Colonial New England shows how in earlier maps, Native American places and place names were portrayed; as colonial conquest continues, the native places and names gradually disappear.   In other Colonial maps, Harley pays close attention to the “cartouche” symbols that communicate the  sponsors and the values behind the maps, and observes that that the principal English encounter with slaves was in the West Indies. (If encounter is a sufficient euphemism for mass murder).

In an introduction that praises and critiques Harley’s work, the editor of the book of essays points out that maps have also played roles in helping the powerless, in addition to documenting and promoting military and socio-economic power.   Just a few examples from recent reading: maps have also been used since the 19th century by public health professionals and social reformers to reveal information and promote policies intended to help the sick and unfortunate. Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map, published in 2007, tells the story of a pioneering doctor’s use of a map to pinpoint the source of a cholera epidemic;  Susan Schulten’s Mapping the Nation, published in 2012, describes the growing use of maps in 19th Century America to visualize patterns of data about subjects including agriculture, race and slavery, poverty, epidemic disease.

Schulten shows how abolitionists used maps of slave populations to evangelize opposition to slavery – the opposite of Harley’s hypothesis.  Schulten tells the story of a famous map, created by the United States Coast Survey that used data from the 1860 Census that revealed the geographic distribution of the population of enslaved people in the South, providing insight into the the political dynamics of secession, as well as the sheer scope of slavery. Lincoln contemplated the map often during the Civil War, and the map appears in the famous painting by Francis Carpenter depicting the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Map showing distribution of enslaved population

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The relationship between maps and power includes another dimension that Foucault might, but Harley and even editor Andrews don’t consider.  The social science applications of maps, nominally intended to help the poor, the unfortunate, and the sick, can also be used as instruments of increasing bureaucratic control, creating new forms of institutional and psychological oppression that complement or supplant mere physical oppression in industrial society.

In considering maps as a tool for the powerful to represent the dominance of the powerless, Harley doesn’t consider examples of maps created by the power structure but used for subversive purposes to fight power.  A map created in the 1960s as part of a regional planning process predicted the seemingly inevitable filling in of San Francisco Bay, with areas all around the bay targeted for new development and road-building.  This map seems to bolster Harley’s thesis. Created by professionals who presumably saw themselves as objectively representing current and future disposition of land, the map represented a power grab in which real estate developers displaced much of the wetland habitat that remained. But the map was discovered and perceived with dismay by environmentalists. The visual became the centerpiece of a massive and eventually successful organizing campaign to save the bay from landfill and development.

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In considering maps as instruments of political power, Harley underplays the role of maps as instruments of commercial power.  The essay on “Silences and Secrecy: The Hidden Agenda of Cartography in Early Modern Europe” tells the stories about policies censoring map data about economically valuable secrets – the Straits of Magellan, African watersheds, and the entire emerging global marine maps of the empires of Spain and Portugal.  These secrets were simultaneously commercial and military, so they bolster Harley’s hypothesis of maps as enforcing political power.

The chapter on “Deconstructing the Map” cites a scholarly essay on the Official State Highway Map of North Carolina for 1978, that reports on the images used on the reverse of the map next to the index; a Cherokee woman making jewelry, a zoo animal extinct in the wild, the state bird (cardinal) and state insect (honey bee), ferry schedule, a ski lift, a sand dune (but no cities). [Harley doesn’t, but might have interpreted the image of the native woman as the latest in the colonialist series; she is not a representative of a group of people, but a species that may or may not be extinct].  The highways are visually dominant, the towns are graphically subordinate.  Harley interprets these symbols as creating a mythic geography for North Carolina, insisting that “the roads really are what North Carolina is about” and “idolizing our love affair with the automobile.”  The tactic of seeing and foregrounding the marginal images and using them to reveal meanings that the creators may or may not have consciously intended is a classic technique of postmodern literary analysis.

North Carolina Points of Interest

Harley does not go far enough at revealing the role of maps in creating the romance and dependence on the automobile as a commercial product and the center of a ubiquitous system of consumption.  The American Automobile Association was created in order to market new uses for the automobile, and to foster businesses serving people traveling by automobile.  AAA maps did not just document but helped create the commodification of the countryside; the spread of spectacle-filled tourist attractions along highways like a linear series of PT Barnum exhibits; the emergence of fast food restaurants to standardize and over-write local food traditions; and the growth of highway intersections as hubs of commerce, replacing pedestrian main streets, and making it nearly impossible to engage in commercial or social activities without a car.

“The New Nature of Maps” quite reasonably incorporates maps within the realm of social history, and imports techniques used to study other sorts of texts and artifacts-as-texts.  If Harley’s observations seemed shocking at the time to the community of professional cartographers who saw themselves as purveyors of objective truth about the spatial world, it does not seem shocking today to anyone with basic literacy in social science and intellectual history.

While the Harley does utilize the techniques of paying attention to margins and metaphors, he does not travel very far down the path of Derridean deconstruction in which any supposed meaning of an artifact unravels under questioning about the nominal intent and integrity of the authors.  Before Harley, Jose Luis Borges had already portrayed those anti-representational forms, where space and time are self-referential, paradoxical, and perpetually deceptive, in his classic short fictions. This may be just as well, since once the joke is told one knows the punchline.

The essays in the book were written in what turned out to be the waning days of paper maps whose creation was dominated by professional mapmakers.  In a chapter on the ethics of cartography, Harley writes that “the social history of maps – unlike that of literature, art or music – appears to have few genuinely popular, alternative or subversive modes of expression. Maps are preeminently a language of power, not of protest.”  Scholars of labor, civil rights, environmental and other movements may know of more examples of the use of maps for liberation and subversion that Harley also missed, in addition to the ones I was able to come up with off the top of my head.

Since 1991, when the field of geographical information systems was in its infancy, the ubiquitous digitization of maps has created much broader opportunities for citizen-created maps and for political organizing using mapped data, with user-created layers using commercial platforms (Google Maps), and open platforms where even the base data is contributed by civilians (OpenStreetMap).

The democratization of map skills has make the artifice of map creation more transparent.    Twenty years ago it took some effort and insight to decipher the icons used in printed maps, such the ecclesiastical miters and croziers that were used to represent seats of church power in Reformation England; to decode the system so as not to take the symbol set for granted.  Today, when you upload a spreadsheet of data points to populate a Google Map, the tool asks you to pick as set of icons to represent the values, or add your own icon set.  The selection of layers to display on a map can be controlled by the user, so it is more clear that layers reflect communication choices. Many more people are being trained on the rhetoric required for map creation.

Harley wrote “cartography is too important to be left only to cartographers (p. 203); the words have proven to be prophetic.   People are creating maps for popular culture (e.g. bike party rides)

Bike Party Route

and for political resistance (see this project documenting Ellis Act Evictions in San Francisco).

Ellis Act Evictions

 

Harley’s observation about copyright is particularly prescient in the age of digital maps.  The chapter on the Ethics of Cartography starts with a bit of doggerel about the enclosure of the British commons – “The law locks up both man and woman/Who steals thegoose from off the common/But lets the greater felon loose/Who steals the common from the goose.”   Anticipating the arguments of Lessig and others, Harley opposes the  assumption that maintaining proprietary map data should be considered an ethical responsibility of mapmakers, and contends instead that data about the physical world should be considered part of the intellectual “commons.”

The rise of digital geospatial applications creates new opportunities for popular creativity and protest, even as it creating new opportunities for commercialization and surveillance.   In the chapter on ethics, Harley writes, with some exaggeration that “cartographers create a spatial panopticon.”  Today, San Jose City Council Member and Mayoral Candidate Sam Liccardo’s proposal for the City to have access to private surveillance cameras for law enforcement purposes.  That’s not even counting the use of mobile phone data for ubiquitous surveillance by the NSA and others. The panopticon is already here.

Google Maps, Yelp, and other commercially-sponsored geospatial apps brings advertising into every decision about and experience of navigating the world; and Google Glass offers to bring commercial information within one’s field of perception.  In “The New Nature of Maps”, JB Harley was able to utilize the techniques of social theory to decipher ways in which “the map is not the territory.”  When geospatial information appears as an overlay in one’s field of vision, it will become more difficult to critique.

For @peterme, I enjoyed the book in large part because of the many examples decoding maps across European and American history, and also because of the opportunity the book presents to reflect on changes in mapping since the book was written.   I read the segments on theory fairly lightly with the background knowledge that this was an argument that had since been won; readers who are more interested in the nuances of philosophy may get something different out of the book.   Recommended for people interested in the subject matter.

 

 

 

Rambunctious Garden

The “natural” meandering shape of a stream? Not so much. Researchers in Pennsylvania, the Pacific Northwest, and Europe found that the banked meandering shape we take for granted as the “natural” form of a wild creek is actually a secondary form that appears after a mill dam has been breached.    Before tens of thousands of dams were built for water power in the 1700s, the streams flowed in multiple channels and pools, creating muddy riparian wetlands.   When steam power made the mill dams obsolete, the dams were breached, creating the familiar meandering streams. So, when conservationists seek to daylight and restore a creek to its natural pattern, the meandering form is actually not the “original.”

In Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem is rather angst-ridden about the ambiguities and paradoxes of restoring wild nature.  In Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris, writer for Nature, celebrates the paradoxes.   The story of the search for the original creek form is one of numerous examples debunking the ideal of a single “baseline” ecosystem that can be restored.  In Hawa’ii, should the baseline be  set before Europeans arrive? Before Polynesians arrive?   In North and South America, Marris cites evidence that native populations had surpassed a hundred million, but the vast majority died of European diseases in the first century after first contact.   Landscapes that Europeans interpreted as empty and wild had actually been full of people and shaped by human activity.   With climate change, the familiar baselines are changing; species’ preferred temperature range is moving north and/or uphill.

After demolishing the ideal of a “baseline” state of nature, Marris reports on science calling into question the importance of the integrity of the “native” ecosystem.  Conventional thinking holds that an ecosystem attacked by invasive species will be less varied and less healthy than a system which maintains all of its original components.  But evidence shows that in many cases newcomers can fit right in, helpfully occupying a niche that has for some reason been left vacant, or complementing the existing ecosystem without displacement.   Even where introduced species are initially destructive, the virulence sometimes decreases, as predators, defenses and infections adapt to the newcomer.

If there is no clear original “state of nature” to restore, and additional species often fit in and don’t cause harm, this opens the door to many more flexible choices of how to protect and enhance the environment.  To cope with climate change, why not help plants and animals migrate? (this was the topic that has Mooallem and the polar bear protectors tied into knots; Marris’ perspective would say move the animals).   To restore a  wetland,  rather than trying to repopulate the original set of species and physical forms, one would identify the functions to be served – cleaning water, blunting floods, hosting fish and birds – and make choices to achieve the goals.

Another area for flexibility is in the landscapes to be considered “natural.” Marris recounts how Americans invented of the ideal of wilderness, citing Nash and Cronon analyzing Thoreau, Emerson, Muir (she outs the Walden Pond refuge as suburban, but omits the snarky detail that Thoreau’s mom came over regularly to do his laundry).  She contrasts the canonical form of Yellowstone and Yosemite, which are intended to preserve pristine wilderness, with park conservation traditions in Europe. An ancient Polish forest has plenty of acknowledged management; there is a long British tradition of protecting wild species in agricultural landscapes.  The book cites a long and ugly history of exiling human inhabitants to create “wilderness” , from John Muir’s exiling Miwok natives from Yosemite, to the removal of native peoples to create wildlife refuges in Africa and South America.

Without a bright line between “natural” human-free landscapes and “artificial” human-cultivated ones, it is easier to see opportunities to improve natural habitat and ecosystem functioning in urban, agricultural, and industrial landscapes, not only in places that are set aside to be free of people.  And hopefully it is easier to take responsibility for the environmental health of populated places, rather than ducking the responsibility because “nature” is being taken care of somewhere else.

If you are “deep green” – if the ideal of untouched wilderness is core to your sense of spirituality and self – and you support environmental organizations so they can protect nature far from cities and suburbs – you will probably not like this book.   If you are interested in the changing science of “restoration ecology” and what it may mean for coping with climate change and protecting biodiversity, you will find this book informative and thought-provoking.

Wild Ones: endangered species and gardening wilderness

The ubiquitous teddy bear has its origins in an politically framed anecdote about Teddy Roosevelt, and a broad shift in American attitudes toward wildlife.  As predators headed toward extinction and the country urbanized, bears shifted from malevolent opponents to cuddly plush toys.

Teddy Bear

John Mooalem started wondering why his baby daughter’s clothes and things had so many cute animal images.   The question led the journalist to investigate efforts to protect three endangered species from extinction, and to unearth the history, evolution, and unsettled present of wildlife protection.  The teddy bear story, and many other strange and revealing tales are recounted in Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.

Mooallem’s discoveries raise serious doubts for the prospect that conservation can restore wild nature.   At Churchill, Manitoba, the ecotourist destination hosting the much-photographed colony of polar bears that are the poster creatures of climate change, the warming climate will soon make the place uninhabitable for the bears.  Human stewards will need to decide whether to leave the creatures wild and watch them die, or rescue the animals at the cost of the reputation of untouched wildness.

In Antioch, California, scientists and volunteers make heroic efforts to keep an endangered butterfly species alive, in a landscape almost completely denuded of the sand dune habitat that hosted the butterflies and other rare species.  It turns out, though, that genetically nearly indistinguishable insects are relatively plentiful, and can be bred to generate the endangered subspecies distinctive visual appearance.

Lange’s Metalmark Butterfly

From Wisconson to Florida, a quarrelsome but persistent bunch of ultralight hobby aircraft pilots train tiny colonies of whooping cranes to migrate along new routes. The birds are learning to migrate on their own, although they have not yet successfully established new breeding populations.

Ultralight aircraft leads migrating cranes

In his research, Mooallem finds multiple elders in several generations of various conservation movements who started as young idealists and have at some point given up the fight, only to be replaced by youthful crusaders who start with a lower baseline expectation of habitat and population.

Following the paths where his research leads him, Moallem runs into contested and unresolved philosophical and scientific disputes about how to perceive, and how to deal with environmental degradation.  But he doesn’t ask the questions in a straight-up way, and doesn’t follow some of the questions as far as they lead.

Is the Endangered Species Act an ultimately doomed effort to maintain animals in perpetuity on costly life support, while half of known species slide rapidly toward extinction?  Or is it a dramatically successful program in which 90 percent of listed species are recovering on schedule?   What conclusion should be drawn from a research finding that 80 percent of species on the endangered list are “conservation reliant”, in need of some sort of persistent intervention, such as control of predators or prevention of human disturbance.

In the chapter on polar bears, Mooallem is skeptical of the sentimental pleas to American consumers to sympathize with the imperiled polar bears, even as they keep driving SUVs.  He observes the irony that wild animals became cute and cuddly objects for children after they ceased being day to day threats for urban neighborhoods far from the nearest predators.  But he doesn’t go very far in questioning the perspective foundational to the modern environmental movement that the natural world is and ought to be pristine and free of human intervention.

This is the case, even though Mooallem recounts a story in the Antioch chapter about efforts to preserve an old-growth oak and hickory forest in New Jersey, which ran into challenges fighting  invasive maple trees. Scientists analyzed the growth rings of ancient trees and discovered that the traditional oak and hickory landscape was actually fostered by Native Americans who regularly burned the underbrush.  Mooallem cites the New Jersey history via legal scholar Holly Doremus, who critiques the idea that “what nature needs most is for people to leave it alone”.. that a landscape will “automatically produce the preferred human outcome, a perfect Garden of Eden, if it is simply walled off from human influence.”

The lesson Mooallem draws is that nature’s responses to human choices are unpredictable, and may not have the desired results.   “Nature perpetually absorbs what we do or don’t do it it, and disinterestedly spits out the effect of these causes. Nature is not a photograph that will always look good if we keep our fingerprints off it. It’s a calculator, adding up numbers we don’t always realize we’re pressing and confronting us with the sum. But Mooallem’s pessimistic conclusion may not be what Doremus meant ( her Berkeley intro course on Environmental Law is online and she blogs so this is fairly easily answerable).

Native American practices of “gardening” the seemingly pristine New England wilderness were researched and documented by scholar William Cronon in a landmark book of environmental history, “Changes in the Land,” first published in 1983.   Cronon’s conclusion, and a theme of his work, is that the ideal of “nature” as separate from humans is a modern and invented concept.  Other works of environmental history, including these books on wetland restoration, document more Native American traditions of modifying landscapes that appeared “untouched by human hands” to European newcomers.

In recent years, the Nature Conservancy and other environmental NGOs have shifted away from a vision of restoring nature to a pristine, pre-human state, toward a vision of protecting nature in a way that is sustainable for animals, plants and people.  Following this philosophy, ongoing investments to maintain species aren’t necessarily cause for angst, chagrin, and assessment of failure.  The question becomes what investments to make, what investments to prioritize, and why?

This is now the subject of scientific debate. Should the justification for conservation be biodiversity, preserving the greatest genetic richness? Should the justification be providing ecosystem services, such as cleaning water and reducing the impact of floods.  Should the justification be protecting the ecosystem, and identifying the key species, and the geographic parameters, that will help maintain the ecosystem?

The chapter on the Antioch metalmark butterfly depicts the futility of the attempt to maintain the endangered butterfly and its host buckwheat plant. Now that the sand dunes that fostered the ecosystem are all gone, the new landscape favors a wholly different constellation of plants and animals. Removing migrant species that are better adapted to the new landscape is an unending, sysiphean battle. The chapter also reports evidence that there are other metalmark butterflies that are nearly genetically identical, though they have different wing coloring and patterns. The author finds the shifting definitions of species vertigo-inducing, and simultaneously admires and doubts the value of quixotic efforts to preserve nature in Antioch’s grim-looking industrial landscape.

One could look at the same evidence in the chapter and reach very different conclusions.  Seeking to protect the butterfly species after the habitat is gone beyond repair or restoration is not worth it. But efforts to protect species by restoring viable habitat – as in this project led by Liam O’Brien, one of the the author’s sources and heroes in the same chapter – are promising investments.  Diagnosing species by surface appearance without genetic evidence is scientifically obsolete.  And it would probably be better to focus on protecting the nearby viable habitat for the butterfly populations that are nearly genetically identical.

Mooallem has an existential crises when he learns that even the apparently untouched North American wilderness encountered by Europeans once had huge land animals – giant mammoths, camels, sloths and others – which may have been wiped out by early human hunters.   He doesn’t trace the environmental history further back through waves of population and extinction over millions of years.   On the one hand the deep history isn’t comforting for the human species.  We could become casualties of the current extinction wave. Current civilizations could go under.  On the other hand, deep history shows that there is not and has never been a pristine historical baseline.

The responsibility to monitor, restore, and help maintain the earth’s habitats is extremely daunting – humanity may not succeed at it. But we have already demonstrated the ability to destroy at a huge scale.  We may not have a choice. Global warming and ocean acidification may be nature’s way of telling humanity, you break it, you bought it.

The framing of environmental protection as gardening is often used as a pretext for clear-cutting, bottom trawling, and other practices that over-aggressively harvest resources with the excuse that humans will benefit and the environment will recover.  The stewardship metaphor can easily be used to imply an unwarranted overconfidence that humans are destined to master the rest of the earth’s species, and the belief that a supernatural being has assured humanity that our rule is just and beneficent (just ask the buffalo and the passenger pigeons).  But the romantic idea of pristine nature is a different myth that is getting in the way of making needed choices.

I first came across the Teddy Bear story in an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, which tells fascinating stories of the hidden and quirky origins of artifacts of modern life, such as revolving doors and the color of currency.  The teddy bear story from Wild Ones uncharacteristically deals with the natural world; otherwise the ironic, geeky, bemused yet sincere attitude fits right in.  This chronically ironic perspective, along with the journalistic method of attempting to weave a larger story from the threads of many anecdotes on a theme, together prevents the book from thoroughly grappling with the scientific and philosophical issues it raises.

But it tells fascinating and compelling stories, raises important issues, and provides more than enough references for readers to follow up and take further, so I strongly recommend the book.

Adina Levin's weblog. For conversation about books I've been reading, social software, and other stuff too.