Why Do We Live Where We Do?

It's been an interesting week of discussing urban issues, and I want to thank Sharon Astyk of Casaubon's Book and all of our commenters for making it so fun. I learned some interesting things from the comments - especially that vertical agriculture probably doesn't make sense, even if it sounds like a great idea to a non-expert urban reader (and page after page of Google results have nothing but praise for it).

I started off my first post explaining how I decided I wanted to live in the city, and several of the comments make points about why urban living might or might not be such a good idea. (Short answer: it depends how soon you expect Peak Oil to completely upend the current reality.) We're all working from the assumption that we can choose where we want to live. But it hasn't always been so easy to choose where to live, and for millions of people the idea of moving to a better place is a dream they might never achieve.

In the developing world, many rural residents migrate to the city because they figure it's their only shot at rising above poverty. It might take years to save up for the move, but it's an investment millions of people are willing to make. China actually has a system, known as hukou, that requires permits for urban residency, so many of the rural migrants who arrive in cities without official permission have a status not unlike that of undocumented immigrants.

In countries where economic opportunity is more widely available, moving to a city is far from the only path to prosperity, but it's still a quick way to access a concentration of job opportunities. Faster, cheaper communication and travel have made it easier to leave the place where one grew up; a cross-country move no longer seems like such a barrier to staying connected to the family and friends left behind.

Family and jobs are often two major factors in decisions about where to live, but then the decision can get complicated. It seems that news organizations are constantly issuing new top ten lists that rank cities on their desirability or livability. Here's a sampling:

  • The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks cities around the world based on stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education, and infrastructure. Vancouver tops the list, and in general Canadian and Australian cities get high marks due to perfect scores for healthcare and education.
  • Forbes bases its rankings of US metropolitan areas on figures for unemployment, crime, income growth, cost of living, and artistic and cultural opportunities. Pittsburgh, PA comes in at #1, and other areas with college towns score well, too.
  • Outside Magazine ranks the 100 most populated US cities based on cost of living, unemployment, nightlife, commute time, access to green spaces, percentage of population with college degrees, income level in relation to home price, weather, and "quality and proximity to biking, running, paddling, hiking, and skiing." Colorado Springs won the top spot.
  • The American College of Sports Medicine developed an index that considers "a composite of preventive health behaviors, levels of chronic disease conditions, health care access, as well as community resources and policies that support physical activity." According to their index, the DC metropolitan area is the healthiest in the country.

I suspect these top ten lists are largely developed as ways to generate publicity, but it's interesting to look at the factors different organizations use. I doubt most people would make a choice about where to live based on this kind of number-crunching, though I do know one person who used a spreadsheet to generate a list of places to consider.

David Byrne's list of "what makes a city livable for me" is probably a better example of how most people decide which places are their favorites (for potential vacations if not necessarily for relocation); it's a mix of quantifiable and intangible assets. I can't really concur with his rationale for size and density (not enough anonymity in San Francisco; too little density in LA leads to plastic surgery), and I can personally do without "chaos and danger," but I agree that intangibles like sensibility are important, and public transportation and mixed use are key. And as someone who feels the need to bundle up when it's forty degrees outside, I have to add weather to the list of important factors.

How did you decide where to live? Have you seen a ranking that captures the elements that are important to you?

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I moved "here" because grad school was here. I stayed here because I found work here. I'm stuck here because I found a spouse whose work is less portable than mine.

If I had to design a habitability index, I would measure the following variables:
1. Cost of living
2. Average duration of commute
3. API scores for local school districts
4. Violent crime
5. Weather patterns

However the traits I find important in my choice of home locale are less tangible. I need to be near venues that would host the kinds of music I like. I need to be near good food. I also need reliable and fast brouadband access.

As for my work, I used to think it wasn't portable. But then I saw morbidity data for my hometown (a poor, rural area), and noticed that they get high incidences of various exotic infections. It opens up the possibility of moving back to be near my family while being able to continue my research. But then I'd lose my indie bands and trendy restaurants. *smirk*

By Rogue Epidemiologist (not verified) on 10 Dec 2010 #permalink

Liz, good to see you did the rational thing and publicly changed your opinion of vertical farming based on the empirically-informed critiques. This is how a science-based culture works, and it puts dogmatists of whatever stripe to shame.

I'll tell you why vertical farming is being promoted so heavily. It's the same reason as VOIP (voice over internet-protocol, or IP-telephony) is being promoted: It's all about the money. Intellectual property, patents and royalties, more proprietary solutions for things that went generic forever-ago, and all of the ancillary products & services that can be sold to go along with them. It's a feeding frenzy on the part of people who eagerly await their chance to talk to the VCs and earn a bundle of loot cashing out their founders' shares.

If we do try this foolishness we will discover that the food produced thereby probably tastes as bland as the output of any other high-tech agriculture, and is accordingly lower in nutritional value. A counter-move will spring up, where "horizontal farming" becomes a point of pride and a source of demand, as organic agriculture is today. (And this in turn will generate its own special logo, which I predict will look like a yellow circle over an equals sign where the top line is green and the bottom line is brown: symbolizing the sun and horizontal crops grown in the actual soil. Heh, I should trademark it:-)

The bottom line is, there is no workaround or alternative to reducing the human population to a sustainable level. This in turn requires universal free access to family planning and birth control (which in turn requires overcoming domination of cultures by churches), universal gender equality (legal, educational, and cultural), and increasing degrees of economic security as reinforcement.

Oh, and that goes for sanitation too. And everything else.

One more thing I was going to mention. Where you say it's good that people raise poultry & pigs in their back yard, don't forget where flu comes from, including novel strains. More poultry/pig urban agriculture, more flu epidemics and pandemics.

For spouse and I, employment is closely tied with political freedom. Here in the US, we are both more or less confined to the coasts, but outside the US our best economic options would be London, Basel, Frankfurt or Shanghai. My Mandarin is horrible, and we're not huge fans of Chinese politics and corruption, so we are thinking about London and Basel more seriously.

Safety and education are closely-following second factors. Spouse and I have both lived in economically depressed areas with both poor educational systems and little personal safety--it's no fun having such poor public safety that you can't even go grocery shopping without being mugged, assaulted or at least threatened. That's happened to us both in major cities and in rural areas, unfortunately. Crime rate vs. personal freedom seems to be a difficult balance to achieve, but many college towns I've lived in have managed it nicely.

Many of the things described in these articles are almost what I consider optional extras; gee, I'd really like to have hiking trails and less snow (or at least good public services for snow removal), I'd love good public health care, but I've now lived so long without those things that they are definitely luxuries in my mind. The more I think about that, the more it depresses me, really--how impoverished the US has really become, that we consider these things luxuries we cannot afford, in a class with fresh fruit and vegetables, home-cooked meals and turning the heat above 62F in winter.

Criteria for ranking cities on their livability? Quality of paddling? Proximity to skiing? Artistic opportunities? Commute time? You've got to be kidding, right?

This mainstream and business as usual kind of thinking shows how naive many are about the challenges ahead.

The problem is overshoot. The solution requires a dramatic reduction in both population and economic activity (consumption) to reach carrying capacity in a relatively short time frame. The reality is that this will occur voluntarily with some hope of maintaining civility, or it will happen involuntarily without prejudice. Nature doesn't care - when limits are reached it will do what it has always done.

So, criteria for ranking cities on their livability? How about access to affordable locally sourced food, water, energy? The ability of a community to endure shortages, adapt, improvise? A population size (less than a couple thousand perhaps) that could be supported by the local resource base?

By the way, in choosing to have four children, Sharon Astyk is irrelevant in discussions about sustainability and the livability of cities.

By David Thomas (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

I'll second David Thomas #6 on that.

Population vs. carrying capacity in the era of the climate crisis.

Everything else is secondary to that.

Rogue Epidemiologist â âGood foodâ is pretty subjective ⦠I guess youâd just have to go on an eating tour of any city you were thinking about moving to!

g724 â Itâs true that having humans in closer proximity to livestock might increase the risk of transmission of zoonoses. Maybe some of our commenters who are more knowledgeable about avian flu can weigh in on this, but I expect the density of both humans and animals influences the risk. For instance, Iâd expect thereâd be less risk in a Portland-type scenario (people have only three hens, and the coop is at least 50 ft. from a residence) than from a crowded slum where a large number of chickens are essentially sharing dwelling space with a dense concentration of humans. And if something is definitely going to feed you but only maybe going to give you a disease, itâs not surprising that a lot of people will take the chance.

Big Blue â Thatâs a useful example of what âsafetyâ means â so often in the US, a âdangerousâ neighborhood is one in which crimes occur daily but the vast majority of residents are never victims (thatâs probably a good description of my current neighborhood). We should still work to improve the safety in these places, but also remember that we could be much worse off.

By Liz Borkowski (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

As far as decisions about how many children to have, itâs fine to draw attention to the issue of population size vs. available resources, but I donât think itâs productive to discuss any one individualâs childbearing decisions, and I ask that commenters here refrain from doing so.

If the human species is going to continue, children will have to be born. Iâm very grateful to the parents who are raising children whoâll be responsible, engaged members of their communities. If the disastrous resource contractions some of you are predicting do occur in the near future, itâll be useful to have kids around who are willing to help meet the challenge. Iâd rather focus on making sure the people who donât want to have children get full access to family planning services â that would have a significant effect on global population growth.

Also, if we cut people out of sustainability discussions because their lifestyles donât meet some kind of arbitrary sustainability bar, itâll be a very small discussion with very limited influence. Thatâs not my preference.

By Liz Borkowski (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

The reality is that this will occur voluntarily with some hope of maintaining civility, or it will happen involuntarily without prejudice.

Population reduction to

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

You left out a word. You would more accurately have written "If the human race is going to continue, FEWER children will have to be born."

What happened to my post?

What it said, before it became truncated, was:

Population reduction to less than K can't occur sufficiently rapidly to avert collapse by means of reduction in b alone. Increase in d is inevitable.

(Guess the "less than" symbol is mistaken for an html tag.)

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Dec 2010 #permalink

I moved to Colorado Springs because I was offered a job out here and it was less of a city compared to New York/New Jersey where I came from.

I have the wild rugged rockies with it's country life and the city in one so it's the best of both worlds.

By Catherine (not verified) on 12 Dec 2010 #permalink