Monday, January 25, 2010

Powers of Ten

The classic Eames film:

Because I'm feeling rather logarithmic this week.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Earthquake in Haiti

Some countries have been historically lucky. Some have been unlucky. And then there is Haiti. I've always rooted for Haiti - how can you not want success for the only country that was founded from a successful slave rebellion? But it's long been the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, historically scarred by slavery and colonialist exploitation, physically scarred by environmental degradation, and beset by countless natural disasters, including devastating floods from frequent tropical storms; and yesterday they had an earthquake which looks like it may go down as one of the most terrible disasters in human history. Jeff Masters has this map:

haiti earthquake map

Says Masters:
According to the USGS (Figure 1), 238,000 people near the quake's epicenter experienced violent to extreme shaking, capable of causing very heavy damage. A further 3.2 million people experienced very strong to severe shaking, capable of causing moderate to heavy damage. Another 1.3 million people experienced strong shaking, capable of causing moderate damage. Haiti's total population is just 9 million, so half the country's population lived in areas that received moderate to very heavy damage from the earthquake.
According to the BBC, the destruction is overwhelming in the area of Port-au-Prince. The Parliament building collapsed, along with some large percentage of structures in the capital. The Prime Minister believes more than 100,000 people have died, or are now dying, in the rubble.

This is the sort of disaster that can have really long-lasting effects. Of course, Haiti was already poor (though it had recently been showing signs of life), but this obviously increases the impact of poverty for millions of people, so many of whom must now be homeless and without jobs. And if the death totals are as high as the Prime Minister believes (or as high as one Haitian Senator estimated, at half a million), the number of disrupted families and communities, and the number of orphaned children, are on the scale that can have negative repercussions for a society for generations.

Oxfam would be a good place to donate to the recovery. The Map Room has more map links for the quake.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


The New York Times raided Netflix's queue data and came up with this:

netflix rental popularity map

It shows Netflix rental patterns by zipcode in twelve great American cities, plus Dallas. Shown above is the popularity of Gus Van Sant's Milk in New York City. They've got maps for the current top 50 rentals for every zip code in all 13 cities, which is kind of nuts.

A few patterns tend to recur. In particular (based on my limited knowledge of the geography of these cities, especially NYC, which I know best) a lot of titles seem to fit into one of three categories:

Movies that are popular in wealthy urban areas: the yuppie and hipster neighborhoods. Includes Burn After Reading, The Wrestler, Milk (they're not big fans in surburban Atlanta), Revolutionary Road (but suburbs, too), Rachel Getting Married, Pineapple Express, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, W., Sunshine Cleaning, Religulous, Man on Wire, and Mad Men: Season 1.

Movies that are popular in poorer or working class urban areas . Includes Seven Pounds, Twilight, Body of Lies, Eagle Eye, The Soloist, Wanted, Pride and Glory, Push, Obsessed, Transporter 3 (never heard of this franchise), The Taking of Pelham 123 (only 31st most popular in Pelham), and RocknRolla.

Movies that are popular in suburbs. Includes Gran Torino, The Proposal, Mall Cop, Taken (never heard of it), Defiance, Nights in Rodanthe (city people hate it!), Yes Man, Marley and Me, Last Chance Harvey, Australia, and Bride Wars.

Lots of movies don't fit any of those patterns, of course, including I Love You, Man, The Dark Knight, and Watchmen. New in Town is just hugely popular in Minneapolis and nowhere else. And The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is inexplicably popular pretty much everywhere.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Urban Growth Regulation in the US

Paul Krugman points to another be-mapped Brookings report, this one on the growth typologies of the 50 largest US metro areas. Here's the map Krugman posts - it shows typology of land use regulation by metro area:

city growth regulation type map

They found that cities followed a few different patterns of growth regulation regimes, which they classify into four orders:

Traditional. This covers 34 metros and 75 million people. In these areas, "planning and zoning remains mostly voluntary, few local governments engage in innovative land-use regulation, and state review of local plans is mostly absent. These are also highly 'fragmented' metropolitan areas with large numbers of local governments, each of which regulates land use based mainly on its own calculus." Densities are falling faster in these areas than elsewhere, and they tend to offer fewer housing opportunities for low-income residents.

Exclusion. These areas regulate against the construction of low-density apartment complexes, and "share a comparatively low use of tools to require that development 'pay its own way'.” Housing prices tend to be relatively high in these areas.

Wild Wild Texas. The Lone Star State is sui generis, its cities less restricted than any others in the country, partly because zoning and comprehensive growth plans are both disallowed for Texas counties. These cities have some of the lowest housing prices, but note that this report was from 2006, the height of the housing bubble.

Reform. These metros use a broad range of tools to regulate and manage development. Central cities in these areas tend to be more prosperous, with more college graduates and homeowners, than in the Exclusion and Traditional areas. (This goes for Texas as well.) The growth control group within this family has thte highest housing prioes in the country.

One thing worth noting is that, though the essentially deregulated environment in Texas is characterized by affordable housing and (in 2010) one of the least bad state economies (not saying much), this is largely due to the existence of uncharacteristically progressive regulations in the mortgage market which kept the housing bubble at bay in Texas' biggest cities. And, of course, the affordability of these cities has lots of external costs in the form of environmental impacts, particularly the worsening of global warming engendered by all that new sprawl. Meanwhile, the report says that reform cities generally offer the best opportunities for minorities (again, ca. 2006; but these areas are generally getting hammered economically right now); and that they succeed when they are oriented towards growth management rather than growth control, the latter of which suppresses development in already built areas.

Krugman makes a further point:
Oh, and someone will surely raise the claim that this shows that you mustn’t have “smart growth” policies because they cause housing bubbles. Can I say that this is deeply stupid? On one side, we’re supposed to believe that markets are efficient and wonderful; on the other, we’re supposed to believe that anything which constrains buildable land — which, you know, sometimes happens for entirely natural reasons — will send markets into wild irrational swings. Those poor, fragile, omnipotent markets, able to handle anything except mild government intervention …
I more or less agree with this sentiment, though I wouldn't necessarily call the opposing view "deeply stupid." I think that on the one hand, a truly deregulated growth environment is sort of like what Ghandi said about Western democracy: it would be a nice idea and we whould try it some time. Even cities like Houston have lots of regulations about how cities can be built, for instance, employing minimum parking space requirements that exacerbate sprawl. (I actually don't know if a truly unregulated city growth pattern would be a 'nice idea,' but it would be interesting to have one such American city as a test case.) But on the other hand, I think what you get from a radically free market in urban development is what you usually get from radically free markets: a tremendous ability to satisfy consumer demand in the short-term, plus horrendous externalized costs (environmental degradation, including global warming, and so forth) and other terrible consequences that tend to mount over the long term, and which private individuals have little incentive to account for.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Metro Monitor Maps

The Brookings Institution does this thing called a Metro Monitor. It monitors metros, economics-wise, and it comes with some maps. This one shows overall performance:

metro monitow overall performance map

It's based on four factors: "employment change from peak; unemployment rate change from one year ago; gross metropolitan product change from peak; and housing price index change from one year ago."

This one shows employment change. It explains itself:

metro monitor employment change map

And this one just shows straight-up unemployment:

metro monitor unemployment map

Says the accompanying report:
Nationwide, the recession is over—at least in the view of most economists in light of third quarter 2009 indicators. They revealed a real U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) increasing at a 2.8 percent annual rate, after four consecutive quarters of contraction. Most interpreted that rate of output growth, along with other signals such as increasing housing prices, as indication that the economic recovery is underway.

Yet the recovery seems fragile. The output increase may have resulted largely from the replenishment of manufacturing inventories and from temporary federal policies: the “cash-for-clunkers” program (already over), the first-time homebuyer tax credit (now extended through April 2010), and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s economic stimulus. As the effects of these policies recede, the recovery could slow or give way to yet another recession or a prolonged period of economic stagnation.

Real recovery in the labor market, moreover, remains elusive. Although output grew between July and September of 2009, the total number of U.S. jobs continued to decline. Payroll employment dropped by about 600,000 during the third quarter (about half the decline of the previous quarter), and the unemployment rate climbed to 9.8 percent by September. While the most recent national-level report showed a significant slowing of job losses in November, and a slight downtick in unemployment, the national economy still seems a long way from posting the sustained job gains that would meaningfully lower unemployment and boost incomes.
I'll be honest: this article seemed kind of boring so I didn't really read it. I assume it said what we all know - the economy blows and there aren't enough jobs. But it did helpfully put a few points in bold, so we can skip right to those:

  • Metro areas continued to register highly disparate economic performance even as the nation showed early signs of recovery.
  • Six metro areas—Albuquerque, Austin, McAllen, San Antonio, Virginia Beach, and Washington, DC—had regained their pre-recession peak level of output by the third quarter.
  • Recovery seemed to be underway in most metro areas, but job growth remained spotty.
  • The first-time homebuyer tax credit appeared to boost economic growth in nearly all metro areas.
  • The “cash-for-clunkers” program boosted economic growth in most metro areas, and probably accounted for the improved rankings of auto production-specialized metro areas.[By the way, it is the official economic analysis of The Map Scroll that the government's efforts to continue to encourage home and car buying is propping up a failed economic model and merely delaying the inevitable transition to a non car-and-sprawl based economy while squandering tax dollars in the process. Our qualifications for making this analysis are various and broad.]
  • The rate of metropolitan job losses in construction, manufacturing, and administrative services slowed considerably in the third quarter.
  • Home prices stabilized or grew in an increasing number of metro areas, but inventories of real estate-owned properties (REOs) continued to mount overall.
This report is from December. The next update will come out in March, and it will probably show improvement, though according to Paul Krugman, there's a strong danger of the economy taking another brody later in 2010. We'll see. In the meantime, So long, Florida, and thanks for all the fish!