Monday, February 16, 2015

Trapped in a World of Our Own Making: Suburban Feudalism Revisited

I’ve been thinking about my post, Suburban Feudalism, and the impression it may leave regarding the role of local and regional developers in shaping the world in which many of us in the U.S. live.  I painted them as central players in the development of American suburbs and all of the negative effects that they create, as well-documented in works like Geography of Nowhere, Crabgrass Frontier,  and Suburban Nation to name a few. 

While developers certainly are key actors in the creation of this unhealthy landscape and trapping households in a narrow range of false choices regarding communities and lifestyles, they aren’t necessarily driving the process as part of some evil master plan.  Arguably, developers, too, are trapped in a world of their own making – and not only developers, but investors, bankers, retailers, and a whole assortment of actors with key roles of their own in the production and reproduction of suburban landscapes.  In essence, all of these actors earned a good amount of money by investing in suburbanization beginning in the 1930s, which really took on a veneer of modernity and progress by the 1950s as consumer durables like washing machines and dryers, televisions, TV dinners, automobiles and the subsequent drive-thru culture conspired to produce sleek and, at the time, attractive new suburban middle class lifestyles away from ‘dirty’, ‘old’, and ‘crime-infested’ cities.  In short, stuff that defines the American dream.

It is a model that works.
What I mean by “a model that works” is that it is a model of development that continues to produce appreciable rates of return for investors, bankers, developers, retailers, etc., indeed, for all of the actors contributing to the creation and reproduction of America’s suburban landscape.  That is, rent for the owners of strip malls and shopping centers, increasing land value, single-family homes, and stand-alone retail business (everything from car dealerships to fast food to banking to … you name it).

To step out of that model by producing urban landscapes with mixed use development, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly street designs, and multiple choices for private and public transportation is to take a major risk – risk that the project will not produce the kinds of returns that ‘traditional’American suburban structure produces.  And so developers and all of the other actors who contribute to America’s blighted suburban landscapes are essentially trapped by their own successes, trapped in a world of their own making.

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Human Geographer Struggles with GIS and Desperately Tries Not To Annoy His Colleagues

I love Geographical Information Systems (GIS).  I love what it can do.  I need GIS.

 I hate GIS.  

GIS is a powerful tool for spatial analysis and for visualizing spatial patterns.  It is a necessary skillset for a geographer to be able to utilize and perform with GIS.  But it is a tedious program (ESRI dominates the GIS software market) that is also (somewhat) fast-changing.   It is a complex program that despite being around for nearly half a century is not really all that user friendly for people who do not study software code writing and otherwise push forward the computer science of GIS. 

And so, what are poor traditional Human and Physical Geographers who are engaged in scholarship and research and must utilize GIS to conduct their work to do?  In my experience, it means muddling through as best as I can, learning basic GIS functions – what buttons to push, what drives to map, what a shapefile is (really) – and promptly forgetting it all until I return to it at a later stage in my next research project whereupon I must re-learn everything all over again.  It is a vicious cycle.

And mostly I end up groveling before my GIS-expert colleagues – members of a global GIS Mafia to whom the rest of us must pay tribute – and meekly seek their council with a heightened sense of vigilance against the slightest hint of their annoyance, at which point I sheepishly slink away to my office lest I wound thou Artisans of GIS with thy ignorance and perpetual neediness.

Don’t get me wrong; my colleagues are truly awesome.  They are extremely knowledgeable, super nice, and fun to be around.  But we are all pressed for time with our own teaching loads and research projects, and I just hate to be a nuisance.  Because, inevitably, what seems like would be a 10 minute imposition on their time turns into a week-long (or more) marathon trying to figure out how to get GIS to perform seemingly simple functions with the data I have.  And ultimately the problem lies just outside their range of expertise because, lo and behold, the GIS Collective – just like the rest of Geography – is comprised of specialized units.  And, naturally, I more than likely corrupt the data at some point along the way, making it all that much harder to fix or figure out.  
Did I mention that I hate GIS?

Monday, February 9, 2015

This Is Not a Blog

Actually, sorry, it is a blog. It’s not a lecture.

I read a bunch of other people’s blogs, and that seems to be par for the course. Blogs don’t work so well if all you are doing is lecturing others.  Instead, blogs are better utilized as a forum for discussion or thinking something out loud, however incomplete the thought.  (ßReads like a lecture; sorry. Hopefully my blogging will improve and not be so lecture-y after a while.)

So this blog is a space for me to throw some not-completely-formulated ideas and thoughts out there to kind of help me work through them.  So comments are definitely welcome to help think things through.

And so … this is not a lecture.

Not a lecture.

And for some reason I am thinking of this.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Suburban Feudalism

Feudalism – that manorial system of the Middle Ages in which land ownership was the primary driver of wealth – still persists in the era of global capitalism, particularly in suburban U.S.A.  Okay, not in the sense that all of society is organized around the principle of aristocratic land ownership in which us serfs work the farms of the nobility in exchange for protection from roaming bandits or invading armies.  But capitalism hasn’t entirely replaced feudal relations.  Land remains an arbiter of wealth, just not the only factor of wealth.  It remains a ‘productive asset’: land is necessary for farming (same as it ever was), mining, space for factories, and myriads of other uses for profit-making. 

As such, land assemblage, land management, and land exchange are all big business.  Think about large corporations that require production facilities, from Ford and automotive companies to Boeing and aircraft companies, to Apple and computer manufacturers, among many others.  Factories take up a lot of space since most production is done horizontally, utilizing assembly lines.  Headquarter operations are typically in cities in order to be near professional corporate services (legal, insurance, accounting, and government, for example) and to take advantage of savings afforded to concentrations of corporate activities, including access to professional and specialized labor.  Both facilities – factories and corporate headquarters – are generally very expensive, costing in the millions of dollars or more due to acreage or centrality (for example, a skyscraper amidst a city in which space is a premium).  Consequently, real estate – the ownership of the land and buildings that house these facilities – are a big part of a corporation’s net worth.  Ford doesn’t just make cars and sell them.  They are huge land owners as well, and consequently, most large corporations have their own internal real estate departments to manage their land holdings and monitor their value in land markets.  This is true for large retailers as well, like Macy’s and Walmart and even fast-food chains like Burger King and Wendy’s.  Indeed, retailers are active in far more markets than any single manufacturer. 

Real Estate departments of large companies cannot, however, actively monitor real estate markets at localities across the country.  Land and real estate markets are very dynamic at the local and regional scale, and so it is difficult for any one company to actively and successfully engage in real estate markets at the national (or global) scale.  These markets remain highly localized; globalization has its limits, as geographer Andrew Wood (University of Kentucky) has written much about.  Instead, land and real estate markets are typically the domain of local and regional developers – agents that actively monitor, manage, and trade in land.  They assemble properties to market them to companies that need sizeable acreage for their activities.   They assemble properties to develop housing.  They own and operate shopping malls, strip malls, and shopping centers.  And they are experts in the local and regional market, steering those seeking space to those looking to sell or rent space out.  Essentially, developers are local and regional landed elites – a throwback to feudal lords of millennia ago.

While we are not tied to the land via custom and law as medieval serfs were, we (Americans) are nonetheless largely beholden to the profit-driven whims of developers – their visions of urban and suburban life that shape the way we live: leapfrog suburban sprawl, corporate big-box retail stores, anti-pedestrian and anti-bicycling highways and roadways, poisonous corporate fast-food and fast-casual chain restaurants, and the alienation of tens of millions of Americans and their families – not to mention the ancillaryhealth conditions that come with this feudal capitalist built environment,including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, etc.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Dude smoking something-something: "It's the universe, maaan, that's why the cat ate the mouse!"

Monday, February 2, 2015

Human Geography and Music

A brief note about the nexus between Human Geography and music that I think about on occasion; or, rather a bad attempt at articulating my thoughts. 

Every semester I will mention some hip hop artist or other in the course of delivering a lecture.  In one section on Latin America in World Geography, for example, I’ll talk about Ricky Ross in the context of the Gary Webb series on the CIA’s role in introducing crack cocaine to Los Angeles in the 1980s.  Ricky Ross, the hip hop artist, takes his name from Rick Ross, the one-time L.A.-area drug dealer who claims that the CIA facilitated contacts between himself and his Latin American drug suppliers.  Students always seem to get a kick out of me even mentioning Ricky Ross or, really, any artist hip-hop or otherwise.  Another time I had tweeted about Kanye West (I forget the context). Stodgy, stuffy old professors lurking about on YouTube watching Kanye West videos?  One student wrote that he just couldn’t get his head around it. 

Maybe they think I am just trying to be hip.   Okay, maybe, but really its about being culturally informed – not only to demonstrate that geography and the social (and physical) sciences are relevant to young people, but also because geography – Human Geography in particular – is so intricately enmeshed in cultural practices and meanings.  And, of course, good music is good music.  I may have grown up listening to the likes of U2, but we all can appreciate good music across genres (Pantera, anyone? Source Direct?) and eras, including new music and young artists who are pushing the envelope.  (U2 today? Sheesh!).  Did you know that Paul Krugman is an Arcade Fire groupie?

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a brother who’s a musician and always pushing something or other (“Hey, have you heard this?”). 

One final thought: With a thorough grounding in geography (political/economic/urban) and the social sciences, one gains a deeper appreciation of the role of artists as social critics and the work they do.