The power of stories

I’m a big reader, and I love fiction. When I began reading, as a kid, I mostly dove into fantasy and science fiction. These days, I read more broadly (I’m currently half way through Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth*), but I often return to fantasy and science fiction (NK Jemison’s The Fifth Season preceded Commonwealth on my nightstand, and was in turn preceded by Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death).

All of the above are highly recommended.

At some point I became a sociologist. And I’m sometimes struck, as a sociologist, by the limited attention we pay to stories. Take this line from Mario Small’s reflection on a small body of narrative theory in Villa Victoria (p. 71):

The theory suggests that individuals understand their lives as narratives with ongoing and complex plots and that they tend to act not necessarily when acts are rational but when the actions accord with such narratives.

Small draws upon three citations to establish this lovely claim, and before reading his book I’d never heard of any of them. I’ve tried to make similar reference to the importance of stories in my own work, especially insofar as they establish lines of action for people. But I think a lot more could be done with this. The power of stories is real.

Here’s the latest example, The Guardian’s piece on the attempts of a Russian oligarch to seriously work toward restoration of a Tsarist Monarchy. In the oligarch’s own words:

“When I was 14, I read two books which had a huge impact on me,” he recalled. One was the memoirs of a former tsarist officer who went on to publish an émigré newspaper in Argentina, while the other was Lord of the Rings. “The image of Aragorn returning to Gondor was my second image of monarchy. It also affected my monarchism,” he said.

There you go. A pretty good case for the power of stories. And also a pretty convincing case that we need more diverse and more creative fantasy!

 

*- I haven’t read the linked review of Commonwealth yet! Don’t want to spoil anything! But I’m really enjoying it so far.

Cascadia!

So here comes the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative! A new cross-border initiative bringing together UBC with the University of Washington! I’ll be generally curious to see where this goes. The notion of Urban analytics, of course, would suggest some interest in urban issues. But so far, at least, there’s very little mention of anything involving urban studies, urban geography, urban sociology, planning, law, or social science of any sort. It’s early days, of course, but I’d be a bit more encouraged if I saw some mention that “urban” implied people living in cities, and we have some relevant expertise that might be worth tapping into!

In the meantime, here’s the four program lined up so far (quoting from the press release):

  • The Cascadia Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) Summer Program, which builds on the success of the DSSG program at the UW eScience Institute. The cooperative will coordinate a joint summer program for students across UW and UBC campuses where they work with faculty to create and incubate data-intensive research projects that have concrete benefits for urban communities. One past DSSG project analyzed data from Seattle’s regional transportation system – ORCA – to improve its effectiveness, particularly for low-income transit riders. Another project sought to improve food safety by text mining product reviews to identify unsafe products.
  • Cascadia Data Science for Social Good Scholar Symposium, which will foster innovation and collaboration by bringing together scholars from UBC and the UW involved in projects utilizing technology to advance the social good. The first symposium will be hosted at UW in 2017.
  • Sustained Research Partnerships designed to establish the Pacific Northwest as a centre of expertise and activity in urban analytics. The cooperative will support sustained research partnerships between UW and UBC researchers, providing technical expertise, stakeholder engagement and seed funding.
  • Responsible Data Management Systems and Services to ensure data integrity, security and usability. The cooperative will develop new software, systems and services to facilitate data management and analysis, as well as ensure projects adhere to best practices in fairness, accountability and transparency.

 

Down at the University of Washington, the new cooperative will be based at Urbanalytics, a University of Washington initiative drawing on “civic hackers” to think up creative solutions to making urban life better.They have a variety of affiliated projects, including one on “housing stability,” apparently led by a physicist and a neuroscientist. I’ve no doubt these are creative and clever people with lots of insight to offer. But as someone who works in housing – an extraordinarily complicated and policy-heavy field requiring a lot of local knowledge – I worry. Wouldn’t you want to add to your team, say, someone who actually knows something about, I don’t know… housing?

On the whole, it’s neat to see the efforts here, and there’s great potential (calling Jens Von Bergmann!) There’s also increasingly a lot of data to play around with, and data scientists have an important role to play. I just worry that brand new efforts to be socially responsible and make cities better won’t get very far without drawing upon the existing strengths of people who have been working toward those efforts for a long, long time.

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Vancouver?

Where are most immigrants to Metro Vancouver coming from?

If you answered: “China, of course” – then I’m willing to bet you’d be in the majority. But you’d also be wrong.

At no time in the last ten years has China ever accounted for most of Metro Vancouver’s immigration. But for nine of the last ten years, China has been the top sender. As of 2015, even that’s no longer true. China’s no longer #1. It’s not even #2.

According to data from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada compiled for Metro Vancouver, both the Philippines and India sent us more new immigrants in 2015. Here’s the data, part of the planning data library from Metro Vancouver :

metroimmigration-2015

Here I just highlighted all sending countries contributing an average of at least 1,000 new permanent residents a year across the past ten years where we have data (2006-2015). There are, of course, many other countries sending smaller numbers that collectively take us all the way up to the jagged gray line at the top of the chart in terms of total numbers of permanent residents landing every year. Graphically, it’s quite clear that China’s never accounted for the majority of immigrants to the area, and has now even lost its position as number one sender (even setting aside the thorny of question of whether to count Taiwan and Hong Kong as part of China).  In 2015, nearly 6,000 permanent residents landed as citizens of the Philippines, compared to just over 5,000 from India, and just over 4,000 from the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan combined.

I found an nice article from last year covering the relative decline in Chinese immigration as of 2014 figures in the Vancouver Sun. But that was before China dropped out of the #1 sending position. I have to admit, I’m surprised this hasn’t been a bigger story! But maybe that’s because I’ve been especially attuned to (and concerned by) the rhetoric concerning Chinese immigration and investment and its relationship to Vancouver housing.

Of course, regardless of what’s happening to immigration now, the influx of past immigrants has left a lasting impact on Vancouver. Chinese immigrants still constitute the largest grouping, by national origin, in the region. Of course, we don’t have our 2016 Census results broken down by immigration yet. But here’s a linguistic measure from 2011.

metro-linguisticdiversity-2011

Considered collectively, Chinese languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and Chinese not otherwise specified) constituted the sole mother tongue of just over 14% of the population as of 2011. That’s a nice slice of the pie! But it’s just a slice. We actually have broader diversity in immigration across Metro Vancouver than is often recognized. (and not all of it is apparent from language, especially since the 6th and 7th largest sending countries – the US and the UK – tend to send English speakers).

If you build it, will they come?

Huzzah! Make way for the 2016 Census Data of Canada! New Population and Dwelling Count Data have been released. Here’s just some of the coverage by David P. Ball at Metro News. For maps of the new 2016 data, check out the reliably brilliant work of Jens Von Bergman at Censusmapper. Here’s one on population change. Here’s another on the percent of dwellings unoccupied by usual residents. And one more on population density!

I taught all day on Wednesday when the data came out (plus there were warnings about the coming snowpocalypse), so I mostly missed the media frenzy. But now that I’ve managed to get ahold of some of the data, it seems like a good time to start playing around with it. I’m going to start with Vancouver, of course.

Returning to the coverage by David Ball, one of the big themes is “if you build it, they will come.” In broad outline, this seems pretty true! Nearly all of the municipalities across Metro Vancouver built new housing and gained new population. The one exception was West Vancouver, which actually lost dwellings and correspondingly lost population. So far so good. But curious puzzles remain. For instance, the City of Vancouver actually added more new dwellings (just over 22,000) than the City of Surrey (just over 17,000), but the latter added more people. Why should that be? More specifically, just how many people should you expect to gain for every new dwelling you add?

A good starting point to answer this question would be average household size. Across Metro Vancouver as a whole, there is an average of about 2.6 persons per household. This average is pretty stable (it was about the same in 2011 as in 2016), but the average conceals considerable variation across municipalities, as detailed in the chart below.

census-2016-hhsize

Just looking at municipalities over 100,000 residents in size, Vancouver, in particular, has smaller households than most of the rest of the Metro Area. Surrey, on the other hand, tends to have bigger households. So if you build it, there’s not just one answer to the question of how many people you should expect will come! Existing household size provides an important part of the picture, providing some indication of both what kinds of households are already in a given location, and what kinds of dwellings have already been built.

But does this determine how many people you should expect from building more? In part this depends upon what kinds of households you’re attracting (singles, retirees, couples, young families, etc.) – are they similar to those already there? It also depends upon what kinds of dwellings are being constructed (studio suites, townhouses, etc.), are they more of what’s already been built?  It makes sense that Surrey, which tends to have a lot of families – many extended – living in a lot of single-family houses, has larger households on average than Vancouver. Vancouver is home to a more diverse set of households (made up of young hipsters, old retirees, etc.) and many a shoe-box apartment, meaning much smaller household sizes – not unusual for the central city in a metropolis.

So let’s see how our expectations based on current household size might match up to the number of new residents we can actually see arriving for every new dwelling added. How many people are showing up?

census-2016-hhsize-newpopdwell

Strikingly, nearly every big municipality fails to add as many people per new dwelling as might be expected! The District of Langley is the only one adding more, and Surrey comes pretty close. But otherwise we seem to be missing a lot of the people we should’ve expected. Why? One big reason, of course, is that not all dwellings get lived in at any one point in time. There are many reasons why this might be the case (as I’ve detailed in a previous post). But if new dwellings aren’t being occupied, then they don’t bring new people. Correspondingly, even if new dwellings are being occupied, but older dwellings are increasingly going empty, then growth won’t match expectations. Here’s where it’s worth noting that the City of Vancouver added about 22,169 new dwellings in the past five years, more than any other municipality. But Vancouver also had 25,502 dwellings that showed up as unoccupied in the 2016 Census. A lot more residents could’ve been housed!

So let’s look at the percentage of dwellings remaining unoccupied in 2016!

census-2016-unoccupied

There are big differences between municipalities in terms of unoccupied dwellings.Wherever the rates have gone up (Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam, Delta), that’s created a real drag on how many new people could be added per new dwelling. By contrast, municipalities where the proportion of homes left unoccupied has declined (Surrey, Langley), have received an extra boost in new residents per new dwelling!

It’s worth noting that it’s hard to say how many of these unoccupied dwellings will ultimately show up as “empty” and hence become subject to the City of Vancouver’s forthcoming “Empty Homes Tax,” but it appears there’s definitely some revenue waiting to be generated out there (or some new rentals waiting to enter the market, which would also be good!)

If we want to focus more specifically on whether newer households tend to look like older ones, we can look solely at new residents per new occupied dwellings. As demonstrated below, it still varies!  But it generally gets us closer to existing household size.  Outlying suburbs like Surrey, Langley District, and Delta, tend to add more people per new dwelling. Places generally moving toward greater density, like Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond, are adding fewer people per new dwelling – often because those new dwellings tend to be smaller (number of rooms matters!).

census-2016-newpopperoccup

So if you build it, will they come? YES! But you can’t always tell how many. Occupancy matters, as does what gets built and who can afford it (or who it attracts).

But there are other things happening too, like aging of existing households. If I get the time, I might move on to considering how background aging in neighbourhoods tends to influence their changing composition in future posts. LOTS of fun things to think about there.

Squat Teams

The Guardian reports on a team of squatters, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (yes, that’s ANAL), and their takeover of a mansion in Central London, purchased and left empty by a Russian oligarch since 2014.  As noted by a representative of the team, which has repeatedly taken over empty mansions:

It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.*

Squatting is an inherently political act, and here it’s also something of an art form. But this squat is temporary; more like performance art than marble carving. A possession order is scheduled to be heard in court on January 31st to take the mansion back for the oligarch.

So what does it take to make a squat last?

Turning to more familiar shores, the shacks below were built and inhabited by squatters on Stanley Park in Vancouver in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

squatters-shacks-stanleypark

For a long time, squatters were a regular and visible feature of Vancouver. They can still be found if you know where to look, but outside of performance art squats, as with the Woodwards Squat, they’re largely forced into maintaining invisibility. Steve Borik’s tidy little tarp-shack set up on an empty lot along the Fraser River is a case in point. He was able to live there for months, nice and quiet, until transit police stumbled over his shack in 2015.

As a general rule, squats and squatter communities no longer seem to successfully establish themselves in the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. There are exceptions (like Dignity Village in Portland, up and running at its present site since 2001). And there have also been attempts to revive squatting as a movement, especially after the wave of foreclosures associated with the Great Recession of 2008. But contrast these experiments with much longer-running squats elsewhere, like Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. Or even better, look to informal settlements in Mexico City, Delhi, and a wide variety of other cities.

So what determines why squats last as living communities in some places, while appearing more like performance art in others? Is the English colonial and common-law system to blame for developing in such a way to squash squats flat as soon as they spring to life? Is there something about settler societies, founded upon enclosure, dispossession, and active ignorance of competing claims, that leads to especially vigorous state interventions to clarify ownership? Fun ideas for future research, especially in light of the forthcoming workshop on Property Law in the City at UBC’s Allard Law School.

 

*- It’s worth noting that on quick glance, both the numbers of homeless and the numbers of empty buildings in London appear to be low, adjusting for the size of the city, relative to places like Vancouver. Also: London (and England in general) has a lot more social housing!

 

Zoned for the Holidays

(here’s a little piece I originally wrote for the UBC Sociology Newsletter as a seasonally themed op-ed style essay)

What if we treated every day like a holiday? Imagine prioritizing time with family, over and over again; repeatedly enjoying travel at its most crowded; eating so much rich food that we practically burst; and buying so many expensive gifts that we drive ourselves into debt, every single day!

I suspect it would be awful, and I actually like my family! It would also be bad for democracy, bad for our health, and bad for the planet, not to mention absolutely unaffordable. Yet all across North America, this is pretty much the ideal behind how we’ve fashioned our cities, at least since the first half of the twentieth century. Insofar as it matters, we’re zoned for the holidays.

Zoning is the primary legal force behind the sprawl of single-family detached houses we see choking off the older, denser workaday urban cores of every major metropolis on the continent. Most people live in single-family residential zoned neighborhoods, which we might also think of as Great House Reserves. Nothing but houses, houses, and more houses is allowed across the majority of our metropolitan landscapes.

All those detached single-family houses prioritize privacy and focusing time on our families, or at least one particular version of our families, to the exclusion of sharing more public spaces with those around us. The more we live in houses, the less we tend to encounter people different from ourselves, diminishing our sense of obligation to others. What’s more, to get anywhere interesting, or even just to get to work, people who live in houses tend to first have to get past many other houses that look much like their own. So they drive on roads clogged with other drivers. And travel to work isn’t optional, because living in a house is really, really expensive. In many cases, zoning for houses has been used to keep out the poor on purpose. Yet we all pay for houses, even people who don’t live in them.  That’s because houses take up a lot of land and eat up a lot of energy, leading to all sorts of broadly shared environmental costs. And living in a house isn’t even very good for us! People tend to be healthier when they integrate walking or cycling into their daily lives, and to do that, it helps to have places to go.

Could we build our cities differently? Are we ready to stop treating every day like a holiday? One answer might be found in Vancouver, Canada’s third largest metropolis. Over the last fifty years, Vancouver has moved farther and faster away from reliance upon the single-family house than any other metro area in North America. Indeed, as residents will quickly confirm, no one except millionaires can afford a house in Vancouver any longer. How has this dramatic transformation affected the people who live here? Well, let’s start with how the city is regularly ranked the most livable on the continent.

If you’re skeptical of the rankings, try talking to some of the residents. As one middle class apartment dweller recently explained to me: “I can walk to the end of my street and there are probably, at a minimum, thirty ethnic restaurants within three minutes of my front door. I overlook the ocean. Access to transportation, to work, it’s so central. It doesn’t matter where I go, I’m in the middle of everything! And yet, I feel like I’m in a tiny little community. I know all the shopkeepers. I know all my neighbors. It’s like being in a small town, but living in the center of a huge city. I really feel like I have the best of all worlds.” Vancouver is proof that alternatives to the house can be made imminently livable for all types of families as well as for those living alone.

Despite the travel, the cost, and the occasional family fractiousness, the holidays can be nice. But treating every day like a holiday is a recipe for disaster. In much the same way, living in a house can also be pleasant.  But it’s only one way to live the good life. Vancouver demonstrates there are many more versions of the good life worth considering. By prioritizing only one kind of dwelling in how we zone, most metropolitan areas are severely constraining our options.  What’s more, they’re driving us toward the least socially just, least sustainable, least healthy, and least affordable lifestyle possible.  Maybe it’s time to reconsider and open up our options. Maybe we should start building our cities for everyday life instead of zoning for the holidays.

 

Detachment and Democracy

In my book I suggest that houses make poor habitat for democracy. The big argument here, I think, is that houses tend to prioritize control over private space. In so doing they generally encourage detachment from public life. Houses suggest we can cut ourselves and our families off from those around us rather than investing in ways of figuring out how to live together. The “single-family detached” house reifies the notion that the only ties that matter are those of kinship, cutting off our obligations to the broader social world. As I describe in my book, and as further detailed in the work of historians like Frykman & Löfgren (see their excellent book Culture Builders) and John Gillis, this was a strategic move on the part of a rising urban middle-class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Housing was meant to serve as both a stage for demonstrating moral worth and a sanctuary from the moral claims of others (the latter rendered obsolete by the extension of market governance).

In a broader sense, most houses are surrounded by other houses. That’s a legacy of zoning, of course. But it tends to insure that even when residents leave their housing, they don’t have many public places to go, and to the extent they bump into anyone, their encounters tend to be with people much like themselves.* As described by a variety of political theorists (from Susan Bickford to Thad Williamson to the wonderful Iris Marion Young), who we regularly run into influences who we think we need to take into account in our politics. In much the same way that getting our news through social media tends to provide us only a very partial picture of the world, surrounding ourselves with similar people does much the same, and tends to lead us toward intolerance of difference.

So too many houses is concerning for collective projects like democracy. On a related note, there is a very strong correlation (r=0.82) at the state-level between the proportion of structures made up of detached houses and the proportion of votes that went to Donald Trump. Here’s the scatterplot:

trumpvote2houses

Housing data come from Census (American Fact Finder) 2010-2014 ACS 5-year estimates. Vote data comes from USelectionatlas.org (thanks Dave Leip), and of course is subject to change – especially as recounts get under way! And yes, the correlation is still quite strong if you remove Washington DC (r=0.74) or drop mobile homes (r=0.76), bivariate analyses I’ve already tried (all are defensible variations on the theme). I haven’t run the analyses yet, but at the county level, you’d likely get similar results, if not stronger. More urbanized counties voted heavily for Clinton, as you can see mapped out here (and let’s not forget that she won the popular vote).

So did the USA build its way to Donald Trump? There’s a correlation and a plausible connection, fitting with an alarming streak of intolerance running through the Trump campaign. But there’s also Vermont and New Mexico (one of my home states!), clear outliers from the pattern. Other stories might be told as well and surely will be in the months to come, but this one’s definitely worth keeping in mind.**

 

*-that said, suburbs are getting more diverse! See, for example, Christopher Niedt’s book.

**-for instance the historical association between racism and zoning in the USA is also worth noting, with the persistence of racism possibly playing a role in both the way zoning has configured the housing stock and the 2016 vote (see, for instance, Dorceta Taylor’s work on some of these connections)…