Optimal city size

Is there an optimal city size? A lot of it comes down to personal preference, of course. If you want to go to the symphony, you need to live in (or near) a city big enough to support a symphony orchestra.

Putting mere preference aside, though, there are some things that ought to be more generally applicable. I remember back in the late 1970s, playing with some data my dad found that reported a bunch of metrics for all the villages, towns, and cities in Michigan.

My dad had hypothesized that there was considerable benefit to the earliest stages of growth (when a town got big enough to move from a volunteer fire department to a professional one, big enough to move from wells and septic tanks to a municipal water and sewer system), but that further growth beyond that stage came with costs that outweighed the benefits.

The data I looked at did show some support for my dad’s position, but I found it hard to make a good case with just the Michigan data. There was only one big city (Detroit), which was something of a special case even then, and only has become more so. I produced some graphs that seemed to show reasonably linear improvements in various metrics of “goodness” as cities grew, on which Detroit appeared to be an outlier—gaining less-than-linear benefit from its growth. I wrote a brief report of my analysis for an economics class, but didn’t have time to delve any deeper.

Just in the past few days, though, I saw the New York Times magazine article “A Physicist Solves the City,” reporting on the work of Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt to produce a model that describes urban performance as a function of population. Very briefly, they have found that both good things (GDP, income, patents) and bad things (traffic, crime) grow super-linearly with population growth: Increase the population by 100% and you get a 115% increase in most of the measurable aspects of urban life.

I looked at West and Bettencourt’s article in the magazine NatureA unified theory of urban living” (article is behind a pay wall), which lays out the case in a little more detail, and offers some references. It shows a graph of crime, GDP, income, and patents versus city population. The log/log graph does look strikingly linear (suggesting a super-linear relationship). However, the data come from just US 360 metropolitan areas. That suggests (assuming that they’re working with the largest US cities), that the authors have excluded cities with populations below about 100,000 people. (The 360th largest metropolitan statistical area from the 2000 census was Ocean City, NJ, with a population of 102,326.)

So, this work doesn’t really test my dad’s hypothesis. I’d be really interested to see what the similar curves look like for smaller metropolitan areas. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that growing your population from 1,000 to 10,000 produced rather more than a 15% boost over linear growth.

Localization—not just for food

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Recycling for apartment dwellers

Recycling Bin
Recycling Bin

To me, recycling is kind of a declaration of failure. It’s a statement that that I needed something so badly that I couldn’t just do without it, nor make do with something I already had, and yet didn’t need it so badly that it made sense to buy an item of enduring value—something I’d keep, rather than tossing into the recycling.

Champaign-Urbana, though, is very much a recycling kind of place. Locals in both communities have long had curb-side recycling—but only people who live in houses. For some insane reason, there was no easy way for people in apartments to recycle. (There was a “recycling center,” but it wasn’t satisfactory—it was 3.6 miles away, and really only accessible by car. You could get there by bus, but it took an hour—and you still had to cover a mile of the distance on foot.)

The story, as I understand it, was that apartment dwellers weren’t the sort to take to recycling: They were too lazy, too uninvolved, too low-class. Only house dwellers were the sort of upright people who cared enough about their environment and community.

It’s a story that pisses me off, because apartment living is much more sustainable than vast suburbs of detached homes. To simply dismiss people like me (who chose to live in an apartment on the grounds of simplicity, frugality, and energy efficiency) over an offensive stereotype of apartment dwellers is annoying.

Far more annoying, though, would be to have that stereotype vindicated by my neighbor’s behavior. And the opportunity to find out has arrived here in Champaign. A few weeks ago, recycle bins appeared next to our big dumpsters (sealed shut with a strip of tape asking us not to dump recyclables until Thanksgiving). We all got fliers asking us to feed the thing.

So far, I haven’t seen much use by other residents. We don’t use it a lot, because we don’t produce much recyclable waste, but we have started separating our cans, bottles, paper, and cardboard from the food waste. But even if our neighbors are quite conscientious about reducing and reusing, I’d expect to see more recyclables than I do.

It’s not looking good for team simple-living. Let’s hope it’s just some combination of newness and holiday craziness—that by early next year, my neighbors will be recycling up a storm.

I really don’t want the stereotype of the disengaged apartment dweller to be true.

[Updated 2011-03-11: Once the recycling bins had been in place for a couple of weeks, my neighbors started doing a much better job of putting the recyclables into the recycling. Phew.]

Making doom funny

In my review of Dmitry Orlov’s book Reinventing Collapse, I talk a bit about how everyone says that the book is funny, but no one ever quotes the funny bits. There’s a reason: The humor sneaks up on you, building on previous bits. All the really funny bits are only funny if you’ve read up to them.

For those of you who want to read something really funny about peak oil, but were unconvinced that such humor was worth shelling out the cost of a book (or taking the time to read it), there is now an alternative: Dmitry Orlov’s latest article at Culture Change, Peak Oil is History.

Once again, it’s tough to quote a sentence or a paragraph that’s funny, but that’s okay: Just click on over and read the article. It’s free, and it’s much shorter than a book.

Whether you’re one of the people who understood peak oil some years ago or one of the people who just figured it out, Orlov wants to make sure that you understand that the reality of life on the declining side of the oil production curve won’t look like the mathematically smooth logistic function that’s usually displayed. Rather, it will look something like the front side of the curve, with spikes and dips that map to wars and recessions and other catastrophes. Further, he wants to make sure that you know those little jerks up and down—especially the jerks down—matter to you.

It would be theoretically possible to ride the downward curve of oil production in a fashion that would look like the reverse of riding it up. In fact, if we’d spent the thirty years since Jimmy Carter warned that our “intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our nation” preparing to do so—improving our rail infrastructure, switching to wind and solar energy, and generally becoming much more efficient—we’d be in a position to do that pretty comfortably.

In practice, though, things are going to suck.

Things will, however, suck rather differently than people expect—which is Orlov’s point. People expect that the rich will go on much as they have, while the poor will get squeezed by high prices—and there will be plenty of that. But after laying out the reasons why it won’t work that way, Orlov concludes by saying, “it becomes difficult to imagine that global oil production could gently waft down from lofty heights in a graceful smooth and continuous curve spanning decades. Rather, the picture that presents itself is one of stepwise declines happening in more and more places, and eventually encompassing the entire planet.” A stepwise decline that quickly results in even rich people having “no access to transportation fuels and severely restricted transportation options.”

Orlov makes doom just about as funny as possible, perhaps even a little funnier.

What renewable energy really looks like

Tobias Buckell just posted about Portugal’s push into renewable energy. He links to an article claiming that 45% of Portugal’s grid electricity now comes from renewable sources, and that they’ve managed this with just a 15% increase in electricity costs. Making the (somewhat unlikely) assumption that one could get another 45% increase for another 15% increase in price, he suggests that it would be totally worth it:

I’d take a 30% hike for energy independence and no money being sent to terrorists in a fucking heart beat.

Frankly, I would too. In fact, I’d be willing to pay a lot more than that. Unfortunately, I’m afraid it would cost a lot more than that—more than most people would pay.

First of all, Portugal was already paying about twice what we pay in the US for electricity. The 15% bump was on top of that. Second, Portugal had substantial untapped sources of hydro power. The US doesn’t.

Either of those, I expect, would doom the project. The first makes it unaffordable—I’d be willing to pay 30% over double what I’m paying now for electricity, but I doubt if very many other people would. The second makes it impossible—we have a lot of untapped wind power, but that comes and goes. Use of wind power will grow, but even with a much better grid (to distribute power from where the wind is blowing to where people are using it), you need something more reliable for baseline power.

But neither of those is the real problem, which is that the US uses three times as much electricity per person than Portugal does. (13646 kWH  versus 4663 kWH per capita in 2005, data from the World Bank.) If you look at the historical per capita energy use in each country, you can see that both countries have shown steady growth—but Portugal is only up to about where the US was in the early 1960s. (And, sadly, following right in our footsteps.)

So, to shoot for the Portugal model we’d have to:

  1. Cut our energy use by two-thirds,
  2. Double the price (plus 30%), and
  3. Either invest vast additional sums in the grid (perhaps $100 billion) or accept brownouts when the wind wasn’t blowing.

Again, I’m totally up for that. My electricity consumption is probably already two-thirds below the US average. My typical electric bill runs just about $30; I’m sure I could stretch my budget to cover $70 if the payoff was no more carbon in the air and no more sending buckets of cash to people who hate us.

But based on the way people actually behave, I’m forced to assume that most people would rather burn the planet and fund terrorists than turn off the AC, downsize the car, and pay up for organic, locally grown food.

Responsibility for oil spills

I’m as outraged as anyone at the incompetence that led to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf: both the slipshod regulation by the government and the incompetence and criminality of BP, Transocean, and Halliburton. I wouldn’t mind one bit if all three companies were broken by cleanup costs, restitution to injured parties, and civil and criminal penalties. But I’m a bit sad to see all the blame being laid at their doorstep.

The fact is, spills like this are an entirely predictable result of consuming 85 million barrels of oil per day. If you consume that much, you have to produce that much. And if you produce that much, you will have accidents. Some of the accidents will kill people. Some will contaminate huge swaths of the ocean.

Sure, BP et al deserve much of the blame. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. A good share of it belongs to every one of us who drives a car, heats their home, or buys anything made out of plastic.

What did you think was going to happen?

Backyard Chickens in Champaign

Backyard Chickens
Chickens at Creque Dam Farm in St. Croix

When I was looking for a house a few years ago, I only looked in Urbana. The main reason was that Champaign prohibits residents from keeping chickens, while Urbana allows it. As you can imagine, I was delighted to learn that the topic of legalizing chickens has come before the Champaign City Council.

I know a little about what it’s like to have chickens in the yard, from one summer when my parents got a flock of chicks and raised them up to fryer size. We didn’t keep them for eggs, but they were around for several months, and I was never bothered by noise, smell, or any of the other problems that backyard chickens are supposed to bring.

I’ve had eggs from free-range chickens—real free-range chickens, not the mockery of free-range allowed under USDA regulations. They’re not just better; they’re so much better as to not even be the same thing.

So, I’ve written to my city council representatives:

I was very pleased to see in the local paper that the topic of changing the law to allow Champaign residents to keep chickens has come before the council. I urge you to support this change.

One of the most important changes we need to make Champaign a more sustainable community is to stop viewing the household purely as a center of consumption: it needs to become a center of production as well. Allowing residents to raise chickens is a step in the right direction.

Many communities (including Urbana) allow residents to raise a modest number of chickens in their backyard. With a few sensible restrictions (no roosters, adequate space for each bird), there’s no reason that chickens can’t be kept in an ordinary backyard without adversely impacting neighbors.

I urge you to support such a change in the law.

The picture that illustrates this post was taken at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farming Institute’s Creque Dam Farm, which I visited in August of 2008 and about which I wrote a piece for Wise Bread: Learn Techniques for Sustainable Living. I’d earlier written a piece for them on backyard chickens called Real Eggs.

Update to add: I got a quick response from Thomas Bruno, one of the at-large city council members. He described the process for getting an item considered by the city council and adds:

Get a science teacher involved or a scout troop and your chances of success will skyrocket.

So, I guess my next step is to get in touch with some of the other people mentioned in the article as pushing for a change in the law, and see if anyone knows a science teacher or a scoutmaster.

Second update: I found and linked to a great article on how to get your town to legalize backyard chickens.