Geography: The Latest Front in the Class War

Upward Mobility Across America

At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.

Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.

We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.

The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.

The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.

The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.

This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.

The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.

Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.

“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”

In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.

I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.

But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.


This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Master of the Six-String

5c78923c_b928_4f05_8e0f_b65161a09a25Continuing the theme of worthwhile new websites, classical guitarist and composer Allen Krantz, who has been a dear friend and teacher to me, has launched a site showcasing his extraordinary talent and overflowing works. If you live in or near Philadelphia, you’ll definitely want to check the Events page regularly to catch one of his shows. And no matter where you are in the world, you can listen to his songs at the Music page. You can also find his recordings at InstantEncore and Classical Archives.

Earth Aid and the New Green Wave

In the past, I’ve talked about green trends in architecture and design. I’m usually very cautious about new hip and popular “green” programs or products. There are flaws in a number of programs and materials out there, who are simply riding the “green wave” to more profits while not necessarily upping the ante when it comes to lessening our carbon footprint.

A new program called Earth Aid, however, seems to be a well-planned, well-designed, and well-thought-out program that is simple and easy-to-use, and encourages people to make an impact.   Continue reading “Earth Aid and the New Green Wave”

Green Building and America

One of the subjects that surrounds my daily life is sustainable architecture. Being from an architecture background and having a mother who gave money religiously to the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club, I learned to appreciate sustainable planning and architecture early on. One of the organizations that has been getting quite a bit of press in the last few years is the United States Green Building Council, a federally-operated organization that runs the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, or “LEED,” as most people know it. As part of the recent “green” trend that has swept the nation, LEED has been borne to the forefront of the issue of sustainable architecture.

While this program and others like it are admirable in their efforts, it becomes apparent that they are usually costly and complicated in their endeavors, acting as a disincentive for homeowners especially. I think that while this is a good step in the right direction for green architecture, we still have a very long way to go before we can make a country that builds (as a whole) green architecture.

The process to plan, design, and certify a LEED building can be very costly, confusing, and if not done correctly, will fail. The costs of registration alone can deter some people (especially smaller businesses and homeowners), and the upfront cost of investing in sustainable and efficient measures for a new building can be overwhelming for some. As part of my work at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I have been doing some research on LEED for Homes in the Philadelphia region, and the results were a bit startling, if not depressing: There are currently only four (yes 4!) registered and completed Platinum-certified homes in the City of Philadelphia. And they were completed by a developer for a profit. The total number of completed, certified homes in the region is sixteen. While the Mayor of Philadelphia proclaims that he wants to make Philadelphia the “greenest city in America,” the residential sector is a place that is quite obviously and painfully lacking in the green department.

Other cities and states are far ahead of us here in Philly: Chicago, Portland, New York, and a number of other major cities now require that all new government buildings be LEED certified. Others help with financing green projects (Chicago being on the forefront), and still others have tax incentives and grants that are available. Philadelphia is in a state of transition right now, rewriting the zoning code and implementing new programs like GreenWorks Philadelphia and is following the paths of many of the aforementioned cities. A lot of the environmental groups in the region, however, are wondering how we are planning to pay for new programs in the economic downturn and how we can incentivize green building. Both of these are heated topics, but I think that it needs to start first with education. Anyone who is vaguely interested in this topic should read up on the USGBC website and learn a little bit about green building in your area and what programs and incentives are available to do green projects. Pennsylvania has state-wide grants available for solar energy projects, green roofing, and other retrofits for small businesses and homes. We need to start taking responsibility for the type of architecture we are putting forth now, as buildings consume almost half of our energy resources. As a part of global climate change that is not really being addressed, architecture needs some serious scrutinizing in how we make standards of green building, how we incentivize it, and how to educate people about it.