By Douglas Moran
Community, Extended-stay Hotel or ...? Part 2Uploaded: Aug 9, 2016
What goes into creating and maintaining a community is covered in the previous part. The focus here is on what can go wrong.
Some localities don't have a corresponding community, or interlocking set of communities. Instead they have two or more separate sets of communities that have minimal interactions, or predominantly hostile interactions. One example of this occurs in enough "college towns" that it has a name: the "town-gown" conflict. It is most evident in the clashes between the undergraduates and townies of similar age, but the tensions are often quite palpable among the adults.(foot#1) Palo Alto has a variant on this, with the "gown" being the public schools. For as long as I can remember, there have been complaints that the school communities treat the rest of the residents as non-existent: that any information sent out on the schools' networks reaches everyone, and the interests of the school families take absolute precedence over other stakeholders. And as long as I can remember, there have been attempts to bridge this gap, with the efforts quickly falling apart because there isn't enough interest on the school communities' side
For example, I was working on a traffic safety issue for a street in my neighborhood circa 2000. The stakeholders included the elementary school families, cyclists to the high school, commuter cyclists, and adult cyclists and pedestrians from the neighborhood. After the initial meetings, City Hall dropped all the stakeholders but the elementary school families, with the result being a design that failed to include features that would have helped the other stakeholders and one or two features that actually hurt other stakeholders, especially senior pedestrians and high school cyclists.
Other instances of the fractured communities are places with large numbers of vacation houses. News stories about their social conflict pop up periodically, and at the core is the disruption and disrespect for the local community by the transient residents who are diminishing the community by consumption of resources with little being returned.(foot#2)(foot#3)
The slogan "celebrating diversity" is used so often that many people fail to consider the limits. The Biblical story of the "Tower of Babel" originated to explain why there are so many languages, but it serves as a cautionary tale: Too much diversity (languages) prevented the builders from being able to work together to complete the project. In the natural world, a certain degree of genetic diversity is important for the strength (resilience, adaptability) of a species, but there is a threshold where genetic differences result in different species. Having too small a breeding population density can be more damaging to a species than lack of genetic diversity.
I suspect that this situation has remained at the level of being only a minor irritant because most Palo Altans have the resources to mitigate these "insults". While it is an undesirable situation, it is cited here to stimulate thought about the impacts of such divisions that could be created by future growth and by current and future policies.
A healthy city, or other locality, needs a range of different types of people. A "fragmentary community" (my term) is one that has only some of those, or where important groups are badly underrepresented. In Palo Alto--and elsewhere in this region--high housing costs are the primary cause of this problem. In thinking about addressing this problem:
- First, accept that it is implausible that balance can be restored: there isn't enough money or land.
- Second, change the focus from the commutes of the individuals who work here to what that set of residents would contribute to the community. For example, is housing for another 1000 Millennials intensely focused on their high tech jobs going to have a positive impact on the community?
- Third, recognize that cost and value are different. Longer commutes can get you more value for what you spend on housing, and for some people that tradeoff is their choice (firefighters are a prime example of this).(foot#4)
Communities suffer when too many of the people providing important services are disconnected from that community because they live elsewhere (this overlaps with the notion of a fractured community where the fracture is geographic distance). For example, having a larger proportion of city workers as residents would be a benefit because their sense of "ownership" would influence not only their work but that of their colleagues. One of the early acts of the current City Manager James Keene was to admonish Staff for using derogatory terms for residents (a practice that was widespread under the previous City Manager). I hear (on background) from residents who work with and in the Planning Department about bad conflict-of-interest management--confirming inferences that many of us further removed have made. For example, because becoming a consultant is a common future career step, the inclination for the non-resident Staff member is to manage contracts to please the consulting firms rather than to get good value for the city and its residents. Then there are projects that burnish a Staff member's resume but provide little or no benefit to the city, including some where there never was a plan to use the study the Staff member produced.
The usual argument for "diversity" cites the value of having people with different experiences and misses the equally/more important aspect of different values. Consider risk-taking (because it is a high-profile part of Silicon Valley culture). A society needs risk-takers to seek out opportunities, but it also need more cautious people to avoid "running off the edge of the cliff". And the latter are also needed to "sweat the details" to turn potential into results. This balance is so important that it is part of the genetics of humans and other animals: The personalities of siblings will often display a large range on this attribute. While the very intention of startups is to enable a degree of risk-taking, many fail because of they lack of this balance. Many startups fail not because the risk went against them, but because their organization failed on other dimensions closely linked to the more cautious personality type: discipline, loyalty, reputation, integrity. (foot#5)
My experience is that "risk-takers" have problems accommodating, or even understanding, that others have different risk-tolerance than them. Different tolerances are often a consequence of different levels of resilience. Different lifestages have different tolerances. For a typical 25-year-old engineer, the risk of their startup failing is of little negative consequence: They often have more opportunities to learn and grow than in a conventional company, and they can easily move on to the next job. However, things are different for a 50-some engineer or manager with a mortgage, children nearing/in college...
Different socioeconomic groups have different tolerances: A common claim is that a majority of Americans are "One emergency / paycheck / surprise away from financial disaster." Not having a financial cushion radically influences your life choices.(foot#6)
Part of the hype surrounding Silicon Valley is accepted, even encouraged--that failure prepares you for bigger and better things. And this attitude bleeds over into civil community. There is difference between wasting millions of dollars of VC funding, and wasting taxpayer dollars. There is a difference between a failed startup that is "dust in the wind" and an ill-conceived project that the community is stuck with for 30-years. There is a large difference between the hype and what our children need to learn to be successful. While we can't prevent "thought leaders" from using hype to promote themselves, a healthy community has enough people grounded in reality to counter this.(foot#7)(foot#8)
A community dominated by a closely related professions can have tunnel vision. For example: IT professionals. My experience with software developers is that those that don't have long experience with physical and social systems tend to have a badly under-developed sense of how systems fail, and often the severity of the consequences. This carries over into their civic participation: They underestimate the messiness of the real world and the difficulty of making changes when a problem is discovered. And it isn't just them, but others whose work is largely computer-based. Also those who are upper-level managers who are shielded from that messiness by layers of underlings. (foot#9)
Reminder of opening paragraph of this section: There are substantial constraints on what can be done--what is desirable may well not be practical. There typically is an iterative process of refining and pruning what is desirable to get what is plausibly achievable.
----Disruptive influxes / "Tech Rush"----
All communities evolve, but some changes are positive and some create serious conflicts. Influxes, by their magnitude and/or nature, can created fragmented and fragmentary communities.
People are drawn to areas that better support their interests and preferences, and their presence increases the support for those interests (example, more and better retail choices for that interest). But serious conflicts can develop when there is a major influx of people, especially when they have different values than the existing community. The prominent local example is the "Tech Rush", so-called because of parallels to the Gold Rush. Within this large influx are those are hostile to the lifestyle of the existing community in which they live. One such group is very outspoken in its antipathy for single family homes (aside: some of this group live in single family houses themselves). Others are so focused on their jobs that they don't make connections to the surrounding community (their houses become analogous to units in an extended-stay hotel). And many other communities within the Bay Area, and world-wide, have analogous problems (for example, gentrification in San Francisco and the loss of diversity that was central to its character). However the focus of this article is to stimulate thought about these problems, and not to delve into the specific local details.
The underlying constraint on dealing with influxes of people is that resources are limited, especially in a built-out city such as Palo Alto. Satisfying a new group means taking resources away from the existing groups. Growth from compatible and incompatible groups presents different public policy issues. As an example, let's assume that you have a growing city where parks are an important part of its character, but there is no land for new parks. To avoid having the increasing population overwhelm the existing parks, the city policy could be to emphasize housing that is attractive to people who would make little use of the parks; for example, people who exercise on machines (home and gym). This has multiple problems and dangers. First, this increases the proportion of the electorate that doesn't value parks as a priority, with the likely consequence of reduced funding for parks. The earlier residents for whom parks were an important part of their choice are now "losers". Second, the expectation can very easily be wrong. For example, suppose the new residents turn out to want fields for organized athletics. To satisfy that demand, significant portions of the parks get converted to playing fields, and that in turn can make those parks unwelcoming to families and other categories of residents. Problem: Since influxes are generally not reversible, once a community heads down such a path, there's no going back.
Next, supposed Palo Alto did build large numbers of small apartments, including micro-apartments, for young high-tech workers. Advocates argue that the city needs to provide housing for those who live here to continue to do so (in addition to providing housing for those who want to move here). But these advocates don't talk about what comes next--when the occupants get older and want/need something larger, where will they go? Increasing demand for next-stage housing will make it even less affordable. There seem to be three basic alternatives for those residents: (1) moving into that next-stage housing only if they have struck-it-rich, (2) moving away, or else (3) staying in housing not intended for people at their life stage. One argument is that people in other cities live in such small units, ask yourself whether a comparable supporting environment--transit, retail, services...--could plausibly be provided here. There are some situations that make small apartments acceptable to certain personality types.
Unrealistic projections about who would occupy new housing units has already caused problems. The example of overflowing the Palo Verde neighborhood elementary school has been mentioned in footnote #9 in Part 1. A similar example is the Arbor Real development (at the corner of El Camino and Charleston). Because of the unit size, it was supposed to not be amenable to people with children (Hah!). Instead, it caused the nearest neighborhood elementary school to become oversubscribed. The Fry's site is anticipated to become high-density housing (date uncertain). What if the number of elementary school students in that housing were to be equivalent to half to a full school? The site is "inconvenient" to three schools: Barron Park, Escondido and El Carmelo (Map that has option to show current attendance boundaries).
The current focus creating new housing units ignores questions about what is being replaced. What is most likely to be redeveloped? Older buildings. And what is in those older buildings? Some of the city's more affordable (less unaffordable) units. When an old apartment building is redeveloped at higher densities, the typical situation is that rents will be much higher. This issue became prominent in the case of the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, where the initial proposal was to replace it with high-density housing for young tech professionals. As to public policy, zoning influences these decisions, and the state government has been piling on bonuses and mandates to encourage redevelopment (Motto: "California: Eliminating affordable housing to make housing more affordable")
Business districts are another example of this tension/tradeoff. A common argument of advocates for major increases in housing density in the University Avenue downtown is that those residents would support more restaurants, and produce a "more vibrant" downtown.(foot#10) Left unsaid is what businesses would likely be displaced by those restaurants. A common observation of many residents is that they rarely go to the University Avenue downtown because there is no longer much there of interest to them, and what is there is isn't worth coping with the traffic. It's common for residents of southern Palo Alto is to do most of their shopping in Mountain View, Los Altos and beyond, and consequently, the occurrences of running into someone you know has become so infrequent as to be noteworthy.
Additional insights come from examining analogous situations. Gentrification of cities is often treated as simply as being the displacement of lower-income individuals and families. But you don't have listen all that carefully to the residents to realize that the destruction of their community is a major part of the problem.(foot#11) Gentrification forces out lower-income families not only by taking over the housing, but by eliminating many of the stores and services that those families depend upon. This change can be because new residents have a lifestyle that doesn't use those services, gets them from different sources (online, at work...), or uses upscale versions that are cost-prohibitive for the current residents.(foot#12)
Retail and services supporting the community are losing experienced and skilled workers because they can no longer afford to live here. Do they raise wages to retain those employees, and as a consequence become too expensive for part of their clientele? Or do they lower their quality of service to correspond to what can be expected of employees at that wage level? Or do they surrender and go out of business or move elsewhere?(foot#13)
There is a Tech Rush parallel in this loss of retail and services. When employers provide in-house substitutes for local services that reduction in the local customer base can weaken the businesses that support the rest of the community. And when its employees are making less use of local business, they are less likely to meet and connect with others in the community. Company cafeterias are the most prominent example, but not the only ones (laundry/dry cleaning services, massages ...). Then there are the private commuter buses--although they are a response to the deficiencies of local public transit, they also remove some of the pressure/support to improve those services.
Brexit (Britain exiting the EU) provides other analogies. Ignore whether or not it was a good idea, and ignore the quality and honesty of the debate. Instead, listen for/remember the portions of the arguments related to concerns about community. One distinction was that many supporting Leave emphasized what was happening immediately around them, and a desire for more local control (reminder: whether Brexit actually provides this is off-topic). In contrast, the Remain supporters talked about long-distance issues: easy of travel, working in another EU country ...(foot#14)
----Neoliberalism ignores "community"----
Neoliberalism is the economic/political philosophy that so dominates the US, Europe and elsewhere that until recently has been portrayed not as a choice, but as an inevitability. Economists talk about the importance of labor mobility, both between industries and locations, in the same way they talk about free movement of capital. Their models treat people as barely different from production machinery.(foot#15) Because they give no value to community, there is no cost in disrupting communities. It is not that they are unaware of the problem, it is just that it is unimportant to their segment of society.(foot#16)
Ignoring the value of community to many people, various economists and policymakers come very close to advocating that the US needs a modern version of the Dust Bowl migrations. They argue that workers should abandon the depressed areas of the US and move to places like Silicon Valley. A few of them give a token nod to the costs and risks, such as abandoning their houses (because there are no buyers) and moving to a place that is very expensive and the employment prospects are uncertain. Very few even touch upon the hazards of moving from a place where you have a strong support system to a place where you have no such buffer. I saw this during the DotCom bust (2001)--part of footnote #7 in Part 1.
An irony is that labor mobility used to be a big advantage of this region, both in the conventional sense of people moving between companies and in the additional sense of joint projects. People remark that they are seeing less and less of this as congestion affects more areas for more of the day. A case of macro labor mobility inhibiting intermediate labor mobility.
----Community as an investment----
People have very real investments in their community, both financial and social/psychological. Upper income people tend to underestimate this investment because they have the resources to hire substitutes and to bridge the gap in creating a replacement. If someone has trouble understanding this, ask them how they would feel if they had invested decades of blood, sweat and sacrifice building a company and then a group showed up uninvited and declared that they were now part owners (with no buy-in) and then they proceeded to freeze you out and change the entire direction and nature of the company.
----The investor class vs the community----
An argument that one routinely hears is that the interests of the (financial) investor class take precedence over the interests of residents. Only it's not stated quite that directly. The argument typically starts by stating that companies want to move here or start here to take advantage of the business environment. For example, auto companies establishing local offices to be close to other companies working on self-driving cars. It then continues by asserting that creating more jobs here is an unquestionable benefit, and asserts that we must accommodate the workers that need to move here to fill those jobs. Since this is portrayed as not just good, but inevitable, the costs to the area and its communities are irrelevant. That the costs should be borne by the community is uncontroversial to the elites--they have long settled on a meta-policy of "Privatize profits, socialize losses/risks" (prominent example: the bailouts in the recent Great Recession).
The unstated assumptions underlying this argument are based on situations far different from ours. For example: the assumption that the new businesses are not imposing stress on the community and its infrastructure because they are providing needed jobs, either by replacing those of failing/declining businesses and industries or by covering natural population growth. Neither applies in Palo Alto.
Extended-stay hotel is in the title as a contrast to community to remind you to think about the importance of the interactions of residents. Public policy choices play a role in what type of community we do and don't have. The character of a community are the set of values that it has and promotes. For example, the particulars of job growth influence housing policy: how much, what type, where and for whom. But this in turn influences many other aspects of the community which feeds back into jobs and housing. This is an enormously complex topic that has received too little attention in local deliberations. My intent is that the points and examples here will spur deeper thought about these choices and impacts in upcoming deliberations.
I look forward to your comments expanding on the points and tradeoffs that register with you, as well as additional points that are consistent with the topic. Discussion about aspects of community that are too detached from public policy aspects are off-topic.
Note that you can sign-up below to receive notifications of not just of comments on this blog entry, but of future blog entries--many readers have told me that they didn't spot the latter.
1. A colleague of mine became a professor of Computer Science at a college in a small town. Aware of the town-gown divisions, he and his wife decided to forego many transactions that they could have easily done online and instead do them in-person in town. This was more than a minor inconvenience: His office was on the opposite side of campus from the town, and their house was beyond that. They judged this well worth the inconvenience because being routinely seen was an important initial step in being accepted as part of the community outside the college.
2. Example article on social conflict created by magnitude of vacation homes: "Obamas' holiday idyll shattered by local anger over outsize mansions", The Guardian, 2016-07-31. The mention of Obama is simply click-bait. Similarly the "outsize mansions" are simply an indicator of the cultural clash.
3. When I was working in England in 1987, the London elite were buying houses in Wales as weekend getaways, evicting families that had lived for generations in the community, and sometimes that very house. Arson as a response had become common enough that it had acquired a euphemism: "a Welsh housewarming".
4. Cost vs value issue was a part of an earlier blog entry "The Law of Supply and XXXXXX", 2014-06-10.
5. Example: Cultural clash on "integrity": Readers of this blog have seen a repeated clash between me and some commenters on the importance of integrity. For example, various commenters see no problem with misrepresenting what others--me and other commenters--have said, and are furious when their comments get deleted or get strong reprimands. They dismiss those falsehoods as only "hyperbole" or "rhetoric" (which itself stretches the meaning of those words far beyond common usage). They cannot comprehend that such behavior is equivalent to perjury or "crying wolf". There are many organizations where such behavior would quickly get them fired. There is a related conflict over "The end justifies the means." Although some of these commenters are undoubtedly Internet Trolls, some aren't: I have encountered much the same behavior is physical meetings, small group discussions and one-on-one discussions. I suspect that such people are unaccustomed to having such misbehavior pointed out, much less challenged,
6. On the dangers of socioeconomic isolation: Current events--Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Brexit...--have shown how very disconnected various elites have become from much of the population.
A cautionary--and atypical--anecdote from several years ago: I was taking a break from working on my computer and was doing some gardening in my front yard--sun, fresh air, stretching--when a group of students from Gunn HS cycled by. One said very loudly "What a loser. He has to do his own yard work."
7. I cringe when "thought leaders" tell students that one "learns by failing". This is an attitude of those few who are protected from the consequences of their failure. Instead, part of learning comes from trying, with much of the learning experience coming from the planning and then mitigating / repairing / working around the problems (mini-failures). Then there is "Learn all you can from the mistakes of others. You won't have time to make them all yourself."
8. I cringe when I hear "thought leaders" advocating that a priority of high school should be teaching students to be entrepreneurs, and when I read of/encounter students who have "drunk the Cool-aid" and regard CEO as an entry-level position. I wrote about this in the corresponding named section of my blog entry "I blame soccer (teamwork)" (2015-03-28).
9. Analogy: disconnected groups in the commercial sphere: A classic story (urban legend?) from Quality-Assurance (QA) dates from the early days of floppy disks. One company seeking to lower their defect rate located a factory in an area with a stable workforce with experience working on production lines. Instead, the factory had a much higher defect rate. The QA department crunched the numbers to no avail. Finally, one went down to the production line to observe actual practice, and quickly saw the problem. Unlike their other factories, this one's workforce included many married women and their rings were scratching the disks. The company's training hadn't considered this. Once the workers were told of the problem, the defect rate plummeted.
A recent parallel: I was at a presentation by a startup whose primary customers would be people over 45. The product design assumed that users were not only comfortable using Facebook, but knowledgeable of its conventions and advanced features. The CEO, who was in his mid to late 20s, resisted the idea that those customers were different from his friends (techies his age). That product never launched.
10. At a City Council discussion on the future of Palo Alto, Council member Liz Kniss assessed the vitality/vibrancy of downtown relative to there being a suitable restaurant still open at 10:30pm. There is a category of people for whom this is important, and many for whom it is irrelevant.
11. Example in Palo Alto: The efforts to preserve the Buena Vista Mobile Home Park prominently highlight the strength and importance of its residents' community, and that it would be totally destroyed if they were to be relocated.
12. Example: Gentrification in San Francisco displacing laundromats: Bias/perspective apparent from the title: One Tweet Shows What Silicon Valley Really Thinks of the People It's Crushing - Tech.Mic, 2015-08-03.
13. A friend has observed that the state of the local economy is mirrored by whether the people stocking shelves in larger stores can help you find things (knowledge and English proficiency).
14. Brexit: Boston Lincolnshire figured prominently in many press accounts because it was one of the hotspots--in the vote, it had the largest margin for Leave. Some of the concerns are similar to those here, such as escalating housing costs (causes and consequences). Two example articles:
- How immigration changed Boston, Lincolnshire, BBC News, 2016-05-10.
- Brexit voters: Why I want to leave the EU, CNN-Money, 2016-06-20. " 'I remember when the U.K. was a community,'said local resident Beverly Shane. 'We are no longer in control.'"
15. Favorite quote: "Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful" (statistician George Box) is also a warning about being too trusting of your models.
16. Disruptions of communities: Larger scale migrations are interesting case studies because one can examine the nature of the communities at both ends: What they left and what they had at the destination.
- Dust Bowl migration ("Okies") to California.
- Migrations from the agricultural South and Appalachia to the industrial Northern cities that started during World War 2.
- Highland Clearances of 18th and 19th centuries Scotland: small farmers forced off the land for large scale sheep raising.
- Enclosures of 19th Century England, which reorganized farm land into larger, more efficient parcels and thereby forced many farmers to go to the industrial cities.
- NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and small farmers in Mexico: NAFTA intentionally opened Mexico up to a flood of cheap corn from the US, which devastated farming communities, forcing people to move to Mexican cities for factory work, or to the US for better opportunities than that. According to Neoliberal theory, this migration was people being attracted by supposedly better jobs. The difference between being forced and choosing is crucial: It determines how much bargaining power the workers have (wages and working conditions). Aside: The effects of this on Mexico's villages and cities and the working class has been much discussed over the intervening two decades, providing additional examples for the topic here.
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.
I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.
If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.