Category Archives: urban geography

Metageographical Pavement

We were increasingly existentially isolated in those days of the pandemic, as the anxieties ramped up around a virus crossing borders came to offer evidence of a health care infrastructure unable to defend us or to be extended across the nation. There was long the danger of turning inward, to protect oneself, but also a shock at the unaccustomed sense of the evanescence of life, that made us turn to Defoe, Manzoni, or Camus for bearings on a topography of death rates that we were not accustomed to process in any way. Less able to concentrate to narratives, I took short interruptions of the problems of processing rising tallies. And if one pandemic drive was a compulsion to follow rates of infections, mortality, virus variants, and, now vaccination rates, to try to make order of world whose disorder seems more prominent than ever, in the forced calm of the cone of social distancing. I read short non- fiction or fiction, while going on walks, travel beyond the nearby counties effectively curtailed, without any destination, to seek some bearings on the situation.

But the reveries of this solitary walker turned to an invisible sort of map, as I sought some signs for needed security that lacked in the daily count of morality and hospitalization in the pavement that promised something like access to an elusive if somehow tangible past. As if reading a one-to-one map that lay atop the neighborhood I lived, whose trades were apparent on the ground, I bore down on the micro-geography of the concrete sidewalks near my house, reading the names of pavers traced in the pavement as if ports of access to different ages. For the years that pavers stamped in strikes a century earlier, taking some sort of comfort in the clarity of the dates of their creation, mapping a sense of their coherence as benchmarks of an earlier era in the unstable ground beneath my feet, as if seeking a measure of clarity, a point of bearing on the area I’d been living in Berkeley CA but sought new purchase. The flat statements of these names and dates, dislodged of much context, and telegraphic in meaning, seemed to hint at a deep history of bordering, private property, and the establishment of a single-residence zoning in Berkeley I had never appreciated–a “deep history” that haunted the area where I had comfortably sheltered in place. In the sense of social isolation of the first pandemic year, the evidence of a deep history of the community seemed a compensation for social distancing, as if I were digging deeper to a past community as I walked across the ground. If the strikes of pavers were not reflective of the bilding of houses constructed in this largely residentially zoned area, paving city streets and sidewalks was an important movement of urban modernization, along with the installation of sewer systems.as the norm of dirt streets and downtown sidewalks made by pressed bitumenous concrete, over rocks, was replaced by compound cement concrete–“art[ificial] concrete”–of sand, cement, and aggregate. I began to trace the evidence of the impact of the housing boom after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on the micro-geography of the pavement, unpacking what seemed hidden history of the local, lying in plain sight underfoot, where they survived.

In an age of increased atomization, the stone signatures retraced a lost community of the area. If marks ofThe Oakland Paving Co.’s imprints of 1904 and 1912 near my house suggested an increased habitability of Berkeley’s borders, the same inverted triangle punched on the newly paved sidewalks near the submerged Temescal Creek, recently undergrounded in north Oakland–culverting the creek to build private homes off Claremont Ave. or to repave the roadways of Berkeley streets for newly built residential neighborhoods.

Ayala St.

–or finding the same paver’s craft on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, muc closer to my house,–

Some stamps lain by contractors, often specific to the day, seemed to set a basis for a residential neighborhood that seemed to be fraying in the pandemic, but that they seemed to remind me of, as ghosts of the un-remote past. If Lewis Carroll famously described a one-to-one map that had not ever been unfolded–“the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!” that “has never been spread out” as farmers objected it would block out the sunlight, a map of sorts seemed to be rolled out in surviving spots on the ground; if Jorge Luis Borges’s Del rigor en la ceincia embraced the conceit soon after World War II, describing, as American military engineers re-drafted national maps by geospatial coordinates that wrapped around the world, described a society that abandoned one-to-one map coexisting with the nation’s territory as it became “cumbersome”, as this large paper map was reduced to tattered fragments in some “western Deserts,” I imagined I found hints and clues that were central to the spatiality of South Berkeley’s Oakland border in the time-stamped impressions preserved in the pavement underfoot, as I embraced a sort of exploration of the surviving evidence as if excavated clues. The turn of the century

433 63rd Street/Oakland CA

If roads to hell are paved with good intentions, the pavement strikes that stood out as marking space and time paved a space for single-family residences, sections of residential sidewalk paved for individual houses, bearing signatures of the forgotten artisans who converted what was once an empty property lot into a site of residence, leaving a sign of the quality of their work and the promise of future expansion of residences: these very pavers set the ground-plan of home-owners’ neighborhoods, the foundation of a shadow property association of the past. The sense of these strikes as something set by past lives–and defining past neighborhoods–was a microgeography dating from the early twentieth century, even before the Spanish Flu, but seemed to define as set a part a new area of paved sidewalks for single-family residences, that were newly settled after having been sold as, presumably, unpaved lots, probably at the edge of Berkeley, if now along the line of a north Oakland-Berkeley divide. The turn of the century definition of the comforts of home ownership across the Bay from San Francisco, defined as a preserve of private property, was a story that was inscribed in the pavement, if one I rarely took stock of or knew–but the unread evidence stenciled by such strikes revealed a topography of social differences and dividing lines.

Displaying IMG_8163.jpg
2936 Ellsworth; Berkeley CA

The concrete sidewalk offered a tangible sense of the past, at the same time as a refreshingly tangible sense of time. At the same time as I looked up to notice a flower, tree, or park in new ways after weeks of deprivation of contact over the first year of the pandemic, as we continued to shelter in place, but my eyes turned to the ground in hopes for transcendence or finding some sort of different news, as if signs on the ground described possible sites of contact with an earlier world. Was this only being middle aged? Or were there some deeper transactions I might have with the pavement, few other interlocutors being present on the city streets, as if in confirmation that we had entered a new era? As if walking with downcast eyes for unnoticed signs of old benchmarks and pavers’ names, I traced contracting and expanding routes as a pedestrian, looking downward to find meaning. And compelled by the keen awareness of temporality that seems to have affected me most at the start of the Pandemic, wondering what sort of era into which we were entering, and if we would ever leave it, the physical remove of these strikes, many from before the Spanish Flu which so many had seen or tried to see as a precedent for the diffusion of illness across the nation, and across the world, with high mortality rates, seemed to leave me scrambling for dates in hopes for drawing such seemingly futile senses of equivalence–or for reminders of a time before pandemics–as if rediscovering a new material relation to the past.

The Oakland [sic] Paving Co. in Berkeley, CA (1904) Ellsworth Ave., Berkeley CA

As newspapers came to be too exhausting to read and depressing in news, or the dashboards devised by tracking apps devised to convert databases of infections to the palettes of webmaps for ready legibility,–

–even as we had no clear sense of the mechanism or spread of contagion, or the arrival of the first cases of infection in California and the United States. If walks seemed to create a fragile measure of normalcy, tentatively, before electrifying news, the comfort of the tangibility of old traces on concrete seemed a form of security. If Walter Benjamin had famously looked back on the dangers of mechanical reproduction as a premonition of fascist media in the 1930s, after fleeing Nazi Germany to Paris, perhaps the craft-like manual nature of the individual imprints struck from frames and contractors individual signatures from bygone eras of Oakland and Berkeley’s past–strikes that continue to the present, and current dates–offered a reassuring micro geography of meaning. If Benjamin fled Germany seeking signs of reorientation in the course of the flâneur in Paris, habituating himself with the modern sense of the streets as an exotic immersion in the senses, the thin sense of contact that these stones offered in the time of social distancing were a far more muted surpise, but a new form of “botanizing the pavement” abandoned by most other passersby. Moving along empty streets without familiar faces, I read names of the architects of the sidewalk, taking comfort in and searched for names as if I could better acquaint myself with where we were. At times, as I collected them as an alternative therapy, I fantasized it was a taking stock that rectified an imbalance, a micro-reparation of sorts before the increased evidence of the social costs that the pandemic revealed.

Spring Construction Co., Berkeley CA 1905; 310 Benvenue, Berkeley CA

How could such rates of infection be processed, especially as they were woefully incomplete? The epistemic unease at the security of mapping, or objectivity of these data maps that were queried, questioned, and re-examined, contrasted with the pressing urgency of trying to read the multiplying varieties of the novel virus itself, suggesting just how much we were still learning and needed to learn; the conceit of tallying the signs that seemed in full gave my apparently aimless walks a sense of purpose, as a form of reparation for a world out of whack, whose discrepancies of health-care, infection rates, and uneven levels of public trust seemed finally unmasked and on full view. Amidst the pandemic’s increasingly uncertain ground, I started to walk farther than usual from home, and walk with greater intensity of seeking an imagined goal, or justify my new status as something of a flâneur, dedicated to find the first pavers of main arteries like Telegraph Avenue and College Avenue in Berkeley CA from around 1908-9–most often from “Burnham,” or shortly after the Great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, at the same time as outmigration from San Francisco across the Bay had led to Berkeley’s growth, registered by the surviving names of pavers, one sharing the name of a contemporary city planner, Daniel Burnham, who worked in San Francisco and others, as the Spring Construction Co, tied to local monuments as the Claremont Hotel.

Burnham 1908; College Ave., Berkeley CA

–or the overworn escutcheon on Telegraph Avenue, off Alcatraz, dated 1903.

Alcatraz and Telegraph, 1903

The names echoed the Berkeley-Oakland divide, from the 1905 paving strike of Spring Concrete Co., Berkeley, at the old craftsman house sitting at 3100 Benvenue Avenue., on the outside limit of the Berkeley border, to where the Berkeley-Oakland border emerges on College Avenue, at what is now the home of La Farine bakery, emblazoned by escutcheon strike of an industrious local family of pavers–the Schnoor Bros.. who bridge three generations–dated 1924. The doorway is non-descript, but the surviving strike is evidence of sidewalk paving enshrined steep divides of income, today reflected in differences of infection rates among contiguous Bay Area cities, historically marked, long before their recent gentrification, by an open racial as well as a very steep economic divide. If sidewalk paving began by marketing “‘art’ stone”–artificial stone–by contractors as a modern replacement for brick or wooden boards, the lots that were sold for houses in residential areas were shaped by settingthese names in wet concrete mix.

443-47 McAuley Street, Oakland CA
6421 Regent Street, Oakland CA

The naming of place on the sidewalk was not only the reflection of a craft–“Whenever a skilled person makes something using their hands, that’s craft,” reminds Glenn Adamson–but a deep if supeficial craft of memory. In staking out of regions for settlement along a clear Berkeley-Oakland divide, these strikes along the border set the terms for a terrain of marking out new residential areas of home ownership. Were these pavers not leaving tokens of their craft as contractors, in defining often Arts & Crafts residences in Berkeley CA, registering the imprint of their handiwork? Was one indeed able to map, as I imagined, the arrival of the very sidewalk of Spring Co. Concrete to the quarry John Hopkins Spring acquired on the former Berryman ranch in North Berkeley, site of Spring Construction Company, mined from conglomerate in what is now La Loma Park in North Berkeley, whose was quarried in North Berkeley 1904-9, and after areas near Codornices Park, Cerrito Canyon, that helped pave much of Thousand Oaks, and pavement bearing the Blake & Birger triangular imprint to the Company’s quarry on Glen Echo Creek, near the Rockridge shopping center, owned by the Claremont Country Club, today, a site of mining metamorphosed sandstone, later run by the Oakland Paving Co.? A microgeography of East Bay pavements seemed a hidden geography in itself waiting to be unpacked, of the quarrying and fragmenting of the hillsides of the East Bay–leading to an opening of quarries in Diamond Canyon, Hayward, prospecting in Livermore, as the search for sources of limestone, metamorphosed sandstone, quartz chert, and basalt grew in the early twentieth century with a greater demand for dressing the surfaces of sidewalks in locally sourced concrete.

On often directionless walks seeking peacefulness, I looked with unaccustomed intensity at uninhabited streets for a sense of grounding, if not re-assessment, if the search may well have begun as my eyes looked downward as if by default. Walks without a destination led me to seek a perspective in an imagined sort of convalescence–a respite from oppressive data visualizations that were hardly a means to come to terms with the collective obituaries framed in the unfamiliar concept of “cumulative” deaths. I was struck by the somewhat random dates on the sidewalk in my Berkeley neighborhood, where “1911” arrested my eye–before the Spanish Flu pandemic!–or 1909, 1930, or 1936 pavers left inscribed nearby. If as a flâneur of the pandemic, finding and collecting the names of pavers seemed almost a search for transcendence by composing an alternate necrology of the neighborhood, as if a form of dealing with death, as the estimated deaths inexorably rose–even if they were all undercounts. The surety of walking offered an alternate form of tallying, as names of pavers became memorializations of individuals, akin to an imagined meeting, as if gathering information for an imagined alternative report; my income low, and indeed dubious, there seemed to be some ready temporary comfort in the small enchantments of the sidewalk to balanced with the global tragedy with perhaps few counterparts, if we often invoked the Influenza Pandemic of 1917-18.

2308 Prince Street; Oakland Paving Co. 1911

The traces of grading the porous pavement were as visible as a laying of concrete that was smoothed out a century ago; just three to four hundred paces eastward, across Telegraph Avenue, the earlier strike peaked out of pavement cracking with more evident signs of time, where the paver seems to have left off a final digit, situating letters or plugs in a grid of sorts to arrange a company logo, that seemed a partner record of the material past.

I found inappropriate comfort in a “boring passion for minutia” by displacing attention. Sophie Atkinson evoked how pandemic days led her to re-appreciate Robert Walser’s solitary pilgrimages–an attachment to walking without destinations–that found timely resonances for her extended walks in lockdown London. As Walser, that prophet of post-modernity, she walked daily in search of an unexpected suddenly “significant phenomena, valuable to see and to feel,” by which “the lore of the country and the lore of nature are revealed,” as if on an individual pilgrimage of sorts. In searching for terms to discuss the comfort walks provided, observing and studying “every smallest thing,” in an effacing self-surrender to attend to local details, the sense of remapping boundaries and proving his abilities to leave circumstances of confinement, was balanced with a drive for distancing current complaints–less with an eye to one’s destination, than a practice of re-orientation. I was bearing down on the local with a similar intensity on often aimless walks, as if searching for evidence or bearings. For turning to the local detail as a site of something like transcendence became a way of distancing a global disaster, or holding it at bay–and a profession of tracking a local topography of mortality as well. If Walser’s walking led to the melancholic realization that “I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, and that all men were miserably imprisoned in this way,” after his flights of fancy, the dates and names on the ground provided some sort of grounding that I needed to process mortality rates and the shifting maps of infection rates.

For all the rapid creation of charts of mortality rates that were painstaking crafted by epidemiologists and journalists in line charts that projected different possible counts, our expectations for certain data were frustrated as if looking into the abyss of mortality: the very fact that only a bit more than half of global deaths are registered–six in ten, the ballpark figure of the World Health Organization tells us, if 98% in Europe and 91% in America; the death toll of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan is guesstimated to be up to ten times as great as the reported 4,848 in the capital of the Hubei province, or as much as half a million, if reported global deaths pushed beyond four point two million, dizzying numbers if incomplete.

Financial Times, confirmed COVID-19 morality rates in UK and USA, March 2020-March 2021

The complexity of crafting a simple line graph of confirmed deaths and those due to complications of COVID-19 had us contemplating line graphs as specters of human mortality, whose complicated crafting don’t conceal so much as reveal the limits of certainty, and made me search not for global but grounds for transcendence underfoot. And in the days of social distancing, on walks that seemed perhaps aimless, but tried to find a sense of balance before the rising curves, following traces of the past set in the pavement seemed a sort of escape from the rising numbers, if not a destination. Daily walking was a rediscovery, as the trips from the house where I lived became less important for their points of arrival, pressing against the boundaries of the present condition, less in flight from something, than a type of convalescence from watching disparate rates of mortality and hospitalization rise, as my attention attended to something else.

If figures of infections, hospitalization, and mortality death haunted the air, solitary walking became a response to a restlessness–in the morning or late afternoon–and I was readily accepting the sense of the walks as haunted, or with added melancholy, in ways that seemed states of distraction and something of a befriending of loneliness, if not what past as sociability. Walking, Robert Walser put it, not with peacefulness but in a way of seeking out being arrested by coming across the individual name, and the odd specificity of the date at which the pavement was lain, smoothed and left to set. Walter Benjamin felt that the walks the author devotedly took must be understood as with a spirit of discovery as a form of convalescence, “newly sensitized to the outside world,” there was perhaps a search for collective convalescence in the undue attentiveness birdsong, flowers, pavers’ names, as if struggling to combat or imagine a future remove from an overwhelming melancholia. In history graduate school, a friend and I had listened to slightly more senior students describe summer research plans of visiting archives with lightly veiled satisfaction, and imagined our intent to exploit the unexamined archives of early modern Oakland, where we lived, echoing how the French historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, had described Istanbul’s unstudied archival treasures of Mediterranean trade, in his own search to gain a new perspective on deep time of a longue durée that seemed more than ever sadly out of reach. It almost seems, in retrospect, as if I was discovering the existence of that very archive of lost communities inscribed in the pavement strikes–bearing dates from the 1920s and 1930s, at times a decade after the turn of the century–a material archive of early modern artisans or craftsmen who were technologists of the community that defined the old edges of built space and its boundaries, of an era before pandemics, and before, even, the Influenza pandemic of 1917 to which we reached back for bearings in search for a precedent for reactions to the spread of COVID-19, and how the pandemic was challenging modern notions of transmission, contagion, science and even space.

I gathered names on the ground as if points of orientation, finding stamps and strikes of pavers whose names were set in the pavement with century ago an alternate register of mortality. The dizzying sense of temporal distance offered a perspective a century ago–before the 1918-19 pandemic of the “Spanish” Flu entered California, were somehow a distance on our own sense of modernity and the disarming unpreparedness for the pandemic, which seemd as if we were entering a new era, and indeed one of historical rupture.

As I felt the sense of a new historical epoch, of an end of confidence of modern control over the spread of disease, whether of the control of inter-species jumps of viruses, and a new range of “zoonotic” diseases, or the mutation of the new viruses that arose, if not from global warming, from

Spring” Construction Co, Berkely CAL. 1905 (2420 Woolsey St., Berkeley CA)

Early pavers’ names are a bit ubiquitous in many of the older residential neighborhoods of Berkeley, CA, where the developers of lots seem to have regularly paved sections of sidewalks for tracts where houses were built, giving them on odd patchwork nature, and resulting in pavements that are often repositories of information of historical development and the segregation of areas.

which I read as if I were uncovering an often unread archive paved beneath my feet in the micro-geography of my neighborhood, in images with only retrospective senses of clarity, as we tried to come to terms with the historic nature of the pandemic’s spread. Strikes left by early pavers–“Burnham-1908;” “F. Stolte-1930;” “P. Barelle-1938;” “J. Anderson 1936”–of names and dates presented as epigraphic evidence beneath my feet akin to levels of time, v snapshots of a stratigraphy of the Berkeley-Oakland neighborhood I lived, “Burnham” resonantly echoing that of a contemporary urban planner, as I gathered evidence about the area I wandered, as if it were a profession.

For if earlier years of the possible pandemics feared to spread globally had been numerous–near-misses of the fear of H1N1 expanding globally in 2009, of MERS in 2013, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2016–the coronavirus spread in ways unseen since the avian-born pandemic of 1918-19, harder to map, track, or conceptualize; visualizing the virus became a cottage industry and a collective rush to create the best visualizations possible. As I tried to retreat from the spread of infections and hospitalization, and indeed the growing uncertainty of both tallies, the dates beneath by feet on the pavements along the Oakland-Berkeley border provided a form of retreat, pavement punctuated by dates that seemed–1909; 1923; 1938; 1930–to mark a sense of the anonymous architects of this urban border. With less of a sense of transport and reverie than Walser, if with a similar dedication to what he called, only partly facetiously, his berüf–“without walking, I would be dead, and my profession would be destroyed”–the sense of opening oneself to “thinking, pondering, drilling, digging, speculating, investigating, researching, and walking” gained a sense of investigating the quite deep history of breaks in neighborhoods in the micro-geography that I started to examine as etched in concrete. Whoever “walks only half-attentive, with only half his spirit . . . is worth nothing,” Walser said of the dedication he assumed, while walking, attentive to houses, advertisements, social transactions, as if to refamiliarize himself with the world as a therapy–to “take fresh bearings,” with a degree of industry, as a “Field Marshall, surveying all circumstances, and drawing all contingencies and reverses into that net of his,” in a calculus of metropolitan space, if with far fewer social transactions–but in fact mostly to “maintain contact with the living world,” lest we be shut at home, before the virtual remove of Zoom.

The paving of the street that defined the edge of the exclusive Oakland neighborhood formerly a farm until 1905–set aside for an upscale residential community–had been paved by the local quarry in 1912. The date gave me new bearings on the present, that gained a spiritual side, as well as a form of taking bearings: Walser found a microcosm of the world and lovely homes, “walking and contemplating nature,” richer than what Walter Benjamin cast as f”botanizing the pavement,” albeit a lovely phrase–for me, the collection of older marks on the pavement began as a curiosity, but turned to navigating historical levels inscribed in a surface as lines of exclusion and inclusion that the earliest dated pavers’ strikes bore witness, and made up for the few numbers of people on the street, in what seemed among the earlier surviving sidewalks that were paved in the this neighborhood.

3086 Claremont Avenue, Berkeley CA
2340 Ward St., Berkeley CA

The paving of this Oakland-Berkeley area was defined by early residential zoning, restricting local populations to whites and often by income, effectively, and expressed in stipulations of residential home-ownership. The border was increasingly legible in the local maps of mortality and COVID-19 infections. Putting into relief my sense of the fuzzy border of gentrification, one could not be struck by the discrepancy of increased infections-as, later, increased vaccination rates–between Berkeley and Oakland. The barrier seem, in my own neighborhood, loosely defined, but defined different expectations and experiences of the virus, poorly understood if only read by that odious term, concealing so much, of “comorbidities.” As we discussed how much the novel coronavirus was indeed a sort of rupture, or how significant COVID-19 was both epidemiologically and, at a deeper level, historically–wondering if the possible narrative of an endpoint of escalating infections would be a return to “normal,” or if “normal” really made sense as a place to return–the architecture of this local municipal border seemed to make sense as something I sought. to decipher in what might be called, perhaps uncharitably, an episode of pandemic flânerie, or a search for a space for reflection and a hope for distance that city walking might offer to cope.

Did it make sense to look retrospectively at the ‘Spanish’ Flu, or why no historical ruptures were created by its spread? The maps offered a chilling reminder of the difficulty of stopping its spread to populated areas, across the nation, that was oddly comforting in the progression of pandemics over space if haunted by rising curves of mortality. And as we watched our own time-series graphs of the temporal progression of rates of death and mortality, questioning the undercounts, role of co-morbidities, and trying to peak under the hood of the data visualizations to grasp its spread, the dizzying global scale of infection rates, hospitalization rates, and mortality rates gave us all on the fly crash-courses in demography and epidemiology which we had to admit our grasp was pretty unclear. The learning curve was so daunting, if so basic, that it seemed for a historian more important to gain distance in the past, and preceding pandemics.

Second Wave of “Spanish” Flu Reaches California as it Spreads across America, 1918

As we tried to map the progress of the coronavirus, its origins, and contraction in different rates, we turned with security to the clearest form of visualizing the pandemic, the time-tested time-series line graph, that basic tool of visualization most fit for something so daunting as mortality, which had been a basis for tallying the estimated total of the fifty million killed in the 1918-19 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, a tally of mortality we would later approach. While the 1918-19 pandemic was a removed event, the curves of mortality on time-series graphs tracked a sense of the compression of deaths to a linearity of time; rates were tallied weekly of the avian-born pandemic in an eerily identical graphic space of data visualization, which was echoed in the similar kinship of tools adopted to contain its spread–masks, hand washing, quarantine–as tracking the progression of time across the old x-axis and the rates of hard to comprehend escalating deaths along the y-axis distanced them with a helpful sense of anonymity.

Spanish flu

As much as we were braced by how the progress of the pandemic revealed vulnerabilities of public health systems, the pandemic had posed stress test of the global information network–both in charting and sharing information about infections and identification of the coronavirus genome, and in educating the public about its treatment, and locating access to accurate sources of information.

The difficult to process nature of arranging these humblest of graphs in terms of total cases of COVID-19–a basic tally, but one hard to say was accurate; new cases per day, a metric that seemed to suggest how much of a handle we had on the pandemic’s spread; confirmed cases per million; or the rates of infection in different nations, that oddly removed the spread of mortality as if we were viewing the challenge of combatting the virus as a spectator sport. Due to the official public denial of its danger or threat in the United States, and in the proliferation of online newsletters, uneven public tracking of infection rates by the CDC, multiple sources of ostensibly authoritative advice from whether it was healthy to exercise outdoors given the dangers of droplet dispersal from others, needs for frequent hand washing or gel disinfectant, and dangers of pubic space grew. We moved through space differently, in the Bay Area, projecting to different degrees a cone of six feet distance, internalizing distance as a social good as we sought to remeasure our relation to a fractured social body.

Public Notice for Social Distancing, San Francisco
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Filed under Berkeley CA, border cartography, border policy, public health, urban geography

The Density and Habitability of Urban Space

How to map the compelling question of urban livability?

The journalist, blogger and economist Paul Krugman sought to qualify exactly which pressures drive the costs of urban housing recently in “Conscience of  a Liberal.”   Krugman qualified how population density effects urban housing prices, by noting the importance of mapping density in new ways.  Scarcity of space or land constraints might seem to shape prices from a point of view of supply and demand, but Krugman argued that we can attend to a new urban geography by looking at aggregate rather than standard population density alone:  in response to Noah Smith’s argument population density was less relevant than proximity to economic centers, he argued that the rise in the prices of extra-urban areas across America, and “hiving off” of exurban areas in such cities as Phoenix or Houston, where the relative scarcity of land does not determine prices and population density in cities’ centers can change independently from the prices on its peripheries.  Following  Richard Florida, the mapping of “population-weighted density” of census tracts that can capture the way that Americans tend to be moving toward less densely weighted areas of habitation, even if the population, nation-wide, is rising.  (While population rose 10% in the US 2000-2010, it also spread out across urban areas, which became less densely weighted over time.)

This new picture of the United States that has cultivated a “lifestyle” of a less dense mode of living seems to be based on the increased valorization of “inhabitability” as a metric for home ownership in ways that are for more widespread than the movement to the suburbs in the 1970s:  we are all moving toward less weighted centers of population.  The hiving off of new suburban regions on the map that Krugman describes have not only pumped-up real estate is a reaction, in part, of voting with one’s feet against the over-density of urban space.  To be sure, although New York City property values are high, if we all lived in at the amazing density of New York City, the entire 7 billion inhabitants of the globe could fit into a geographic space similar to Colorado–a state which currently has a low density in much of its expanse, but whose pockets of population density are interestingly clustered close to adjoining regions of medium density.

Colorado_population_map

One thinks of the much-circulated infographic, repopulating the world within the United States at the density of global metropoles, that suggests the exceeding density that urban cities have come to acquire, and the continued density that a city such as New York or Paris holds, in comparison to San Fransisco or Houston:

the-worlds-population-concentrated-small

The variation of cities suggests some reasons for, say, the greater “livability” of certain places, as well as the distinct nature of the urban experience in a broad selection of cities across the world.

So what does this “hiving off”–distinct from suburbanization, as it suggests an exurban experience even outside of cities with relatively low population density, entail?  The 1970s phenomenon of widespread suburbanization, allowed by the creation of major highways and arterials that fed by commutes to urban centers like New York or Los Angeles, which served as an endangering withdrawal from many public schools in cities and urban centers, reacted to the intense pace of urban growth and in-migration.  Rather than based on suburban homes, the hiving off of communities echoed a similar demand for “habitability,” but was now about creating new spaces where exurban communities could be created, and how we could use the concept of aggregate density to measure them.

Krugman offered a more specific updating of James Kunstler’s compelling critique of urban sprawl.  when it was launched in the 1993, Kunstler decried the unwarranted expansion of suburban housing and malls in a manifesto that responded to America of the late 1980s, The Geography of Nowhere, as “the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known”–what he called “dead spaces” that he saw as produced by the new attitudes to space that the automobile allowed, stripping vitality from urban centers, and creating the rise of quasi-spaces of strip malls as suburban heterotopia, displaced amusement parks of purchasing, lined with unproductive spaces of parking lots.  This partly architectural perversion of lived space, for Kunstler, led to an evacuation of vitality.  Krugman focusses rather on the place that “habitability” has gained among the economic forces that shape the prices of urban homes:  his argument begs to be mapped, or graphically modeled as well as understood by statistical indices.

Economic thought might be playing catch up with cartographical modeling here:  the critical mapping of density, after all, began right after the 1870 census, when Francis Amasa Walker, superintendent of the census, offered a new model for mapping the population density of the nation not according to county, or electoral districts, but according to the actual contours by which the citizenry inhabited space:  dividing each square mile into its relative density of inhabitants, Walker distinguished those zones with less than 5 inhabitants/sq. mile from those with 5-15, 15-40, 40-75, 75-125, and over 125 inhabitants/sq. mile in 1872, and from that year undertook a number of projects with congressional funding that mapped that distribution against wealth  per capita, to create the first map to record the distribution of wealth in the nation’s geographic space, revealing the dynamics of income distribution along spatial axes–in what Susan Schulten aptly described as the nation’s first example of an infographic.  (Never one to not consider the uses of mapping populations, he created similar maps for the US Congress that mapped population density against disease, illiteracy, public debt, ethnic groups, and the birthrate.)

Desnity of Population [of US]

Such a clear figuration of density does not correspond to actual urban areas, given the former density of rural populations–or have fine enough grain to distinguish property value in them.  But it roughly reflects property values in the nation.  But its generalization of density across each county provides a useful metric to understand variations in the generation of income, tax revenues, and birth rates.  While a model of density-independent population growth may be applicable to animals–plants, insects, mammals, and other seasonally reproducing species, population growth is rarely independent from density in human populations:  and with the increasing segregation of age cohorts in contemporary America–and the graying of some cities, and lower age-level of others, the metrics of growth are especially not uniform.

A more contemporary, but less statistically exacting, version of the infographic–stated in the bluntness of th modern infographic, might provide the following portrait of the relative density of individual states in the union:

sq kilometer

At a finer grain, we find a density map as the following, which provides far more refined detail:

specialreports_2edb.population density usa

And we can zoom in for density of regions, in ways that provide a clearer picture of the Southwestern states in terms of how they broke down by counties, over time, around metropoles:

popanim

To be fair, such a general level of density is not that relevant to the points that Krugman addresses in this specific issue, where he advocates the need for moving away from such generalizations of state-wide population densities, which are less meaningful for microeconomic questions, to examine the organization of the city as a unit in ways that will allow us to distinguish the changing character and economics of urban areas.  Krugman considers how changes in urban geography across the US reflect a new paradigm or model of population density, he asks us to consider new tools to map where ‘average’ Americans live by the “weighted” density of population distributions similar to the sort of maps Walker first innovated, and focus attention on the relative density of different zones not of the nation but individual urban areas.

He argued that overall ‘density’ means less today than ‘aggregate density‘ or the relative density of neighborhoods or sectors of new urban growth, and used this as a dynamic structure to  map population density according to weighted density to better  understand how the “average” American lives.   He does so to offer a critique or assessment of how his fellow-economist Bill McBride suggested attending to population density as they were correlated with housing costs his competing finance blog, Calculated Risk.  Does overall ‘density’ mean less as a measure of housing cost, Krugman wonders, than ‘aggregate density’ (or relative density) within selective regions of cities?

Like Paul Krugman, I would question the meaning of density as an index of value, but I would suggest we need to develop tools to understand the dynamics of density that involve a more fuzzy or less quantifiable variable of habitability, which I would argue if less easily quantifiable becomes more evident in maps.   And in the remainder of this post, I’d like to show how maps offer a measure of the fuzzy value of ‘habitability’ as well as its inverse, a perceptions of ‘uninhabitability,’ might be loosely understood as a way to map the increase or the radical diminishing of property values rather than density alone–or understandings of how density drives demand.

We might  use these maps to include other variables that shape density, and use maps  to do so.  The question of how we can try to map habitability, both in terms of access to open spaces, access to markets, and attractive environments, might create an even better index of value.  In San Francisco, for example, where property rates have risen dramatically in the past several years, and whose neighborhoods are confined to a small area of land:  Oakland is itself much less dense, if also confined by similar topographic limitations, notably the mountains:  but four of the ten most expensive housing markets in the country, including Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, and Marin, are in the Bay area, according to the recent March 2013 Report of the National Low Income Housing Coalition–and in the state that requires the greatest hourly wage to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

out of reach hourly wage per two bedroom

To be sure, the variations of real estate and population in a state like California are closely tied, given the huge variations of density across the state.

California_population_map

Yet the profound variations in the Bay Area, to take one example that is clotted with a red of high density, indicates profoundly striking differences in desirability:

sanmap1

And such dramatically differing variations across the region seem to be distorted by the demand for living near a not-densely populated area such as Silicon Valley, where real estate prices are suggested in this Kwelia map of 2012 which illustrates the relative geographic distribution according to median incomes–and suggests the very real distortions in real estate that can occur independently of actual or weighted density.

screen shot 2014-01-17 at 9-2.14.13 am.pngKwelia


Whereas the debate between the economists turned around the measure of density, it’s unclear why in an age of complex data visualization Krugman omits variables beyond density or to map determinants of urban spaces.  As an economist is wont, Krugman tends to confine himself to contrasting the relative value of alternative models of housing markets in urban space.  If we accept the model of scarcity as the motor of rapidly escalating real estate prices, it’s hard to explain the rise of attraction to less densely populated urban areas in urban areas, however, or the re-use of less inhabited areas as new areas of density.  If we might assume rising population means rising housing costs, as Smith has since noted in an update to his post, transit policy and presumably other public policy issues related to urban infrastructure can influence or shape housing costs–issues that introduce habitability as much as density as an influence on housing costs.

If we weigh models of density and populated-weighted density as models of urban environments, population-weighted density might help explain the social geography of urban spaces at a time when average American increasingly live in somewhat less dense neighborhood:  during the first decade of the century, population has broadly “spread out within metropolitan areas” and brought a “hiving off” from cities and led many cities to abandon the model of a vital urban core is often associated with  “quality of life.”   But the generic term does not reflect how urban space becomes mapped as habitable to different populations and demographics:  for just as cities are mapped in new ways by public projects of urban infrastructure, people map areas of settlement around the contours of urban space by preferring zones,  in turn attracting further interest in them.  An interesting liberal strain of response to Krugman’s post bemoans the end of Jane Jacob’s model of the city as constituted by local communities and the positive sense she gave density as causes of the community and vibrancy of individual neighborhoods, which she valued as the basis for urban life.  (Many also critiqued his argument as not acknowledging the economic models of different cities, from how the absence of economic vitality thins cities like Detroit to how hi-tech creates a new geography of work.)  But in mapping population-weighted density only in numeric terms, Krugman may ignore the appeal that the neighborhood–as much as geographic location–has on real estate, and the increasing flexibility with which a neighborhood–even of different but overlapping socioeconomic backgrounds among their residents–is redefined in particularly flexible ways.

Less attention is paid in both models  to the constraints by which people map their own living spaces, even when constrained by a city’s complex and often unfair geography.  Parts of urban environments are recast as more habitable based on different criteria, often in response to the made or ‘created’ geography of the city–or fail to be recast in habitable terms.  The growth of desirable land in Los Angeles responds to the constraints with which freeways have sculpted urban space, and indeed in ways bound by the 405 in a sort of deterministic way, and the creation of the former Cypress Freeway shaped–and in cases destroyed communities in Oakland, California.  Vice versa, patterns of urban settlement and housing prices helped the investment in an urban infrastructure as transportation in Boston or New York, because they led populations to map their lives in urban space.

Does density alone shape market prices?  In a sense, yes:  but density is a reflection of deeper indices that one might better term ‘habitability’ given their manifold causes and considerable variations.  Changes in workplace practices and locations encourage a shifting relation to the urban space, as more people work on-line, of course, and live and work in isolated archipelagos around cities:  the vitality of neighborhoods that Jacobs celebrated has become far less important as a unit of economic meaning with increased geographic mobility and more dispersive work environments, including telecommuting. As a result, the framing of a debate between population-weighted density or the availability of “space” as determining land value omits the notions of habitability shape urban space: rising land prices in LA, for example, reflect the shifting attitudes to space created by a system of freeways that shaped land values–rather than scarcity–and defined a map of urban settlement outside corridors of transport that, more than mountains, shape Los Angeles neighborhoods.

This reflects the desire for a way to maps how areas become understood as habitable:  and in Oakland, where property values have risen not only in response to the rising rents in SF, but as the city has been defining new notions of habitability by restaurants, urban gardens, and public spaces like farmers’ markets.  By trying to identify a model for urban settlement, geography of population density becomes a stick of measurement rather than the remaking of urban spaces:  multiple complex constraints on the habitability of urban environments limit the development of urban land values.  In  the recent recouping of housing prices in the Bay Area, for example, areas of recent price increases were mapped based on data from Zillow.com–and metadata from Google Maps–to find a considerable recuperation of costs in San Francisco and Fremont alike, despite their quite different density, and a mild recuperation in many of the low-density areas of Berkeley and Oakland, as is rendered evident in the regions of light rose coloration below.

 

Bay Area Property Map

Conversely, if much of Richmond, Brentwood, Antioch, Union City and Hayward remain selling at a far lower price than in the prior boom, many Oakland properties sell at a brisk price, and hi-tech areas like Mountain View–and some areas near Walnut Creek–are positively booming.  To some extent this has to do with access to economic centers:  the less populated but also less desired and more removed Daly City is nowhere near recovering its boom prices, while Mountain View has surpassed boom prices.  But the widespread recovery speaks to issues of habitability, as much as density.

As a counterfactual, let’s look at some actual urban environments where the question of habitability responded to a striking lack of investment in creating a habitable urban space with adequate infrastructure or access to green space–one crucial measure of habitability.  Consider, for example, the considerable distances at which less valuable property lie from green spaces or urban parks in Los Angeles, creating an endemic that led the “LA Streets” Blog Santa to bring the city more green spaces last Christmas.  (African American neighborhoods enjoy .8 acres per thousand people, in contrast to the recommended 10 acres per thousand inhabitants, or the median 6.8 in high density American cities.)  Pink regions here map a distance from park exceeding the LA average, most of which are concentrated away from the shoreline or surrounding national forest:

Access to Parks in Los Angeles

 

The value of land responds to how we map urban spaces as habitable often shapes property values, as much as the questions of the availability of space. Something like the new Stamen map that focusses on the readability of mapped space by watercolor tiles, pioneered by Zach Watson, provides a new resource to look at urban space to analyze questions of habitability without being distracted by data overload, in what was intended as a visually simpler and pleasurable alternative to the tedium of Google Maps, provides a manner to differentiate neighborhoods in San Francisco–albeit a region whose high real estate prices don’t need much explaining:

 

SF Greenspace Stamen

 

Krugman provoked an interesting comment that advances in GIS could provide new tools to include aggregate densities in urban spaces.  Indeed, working with the above Stamen map, or with a time-lapse model of aggregation might provide tools to show the shifts in how space became ‘habitable’ or worthy of inhabitation.  These tools offer the ability to map a new geography of work:  one could model of the shifts in economic redistribution of wealth in urban space, or relative distance of residents to workspace, that might map the relation of neighborhoods to space beyond their relative income or real estate costs.

Flexible GIS models might also help reveal the different maps people create within a city as an environment in powerful ways.  In juxtaposing the alternatives between two models of urban life–the metric of population growth, which  creates competition for limited resources of land in a somewhat Malthusian fashion, or population density, or urban settlement informed by how agglomerations understood in terms of population-weighted density shape demand in extra-urban spaces or urban peripheries for land that changes land prices–the mutable map of the urban fabric is either dramatically oversimplified or ignored.   When land is constrained, the first train of thought goes, rising populations increase the price of land faster than inflation; the questions of how people map land as habitable–and desirable–more informs the second proposition, pointing to the rise of “edge-cities” on extra-urban space that become desired centers of population.

That choice between population and weighted density seems a bit artificial,  because both are abstracted from how people make concepts of neighborhoods out of open space–by mapping it as their own, or by not being able to do so.  Today, New York has of course become the model of a high “population-weighted density” city, based on the average land density of its inhabitants, or the relative density of its populated areas.   But whereas in the 1970s suburbia gained value in the 1970s around greater New York, leading them to abandon a city that became defined as less “habitable,” and to define preserves away from commercial activity, we now value habitability as a relation to a neighborhood, or something like one.

The remapping of the urban core as economically vital paralleled a shift in the understanding of its “inhabitability”– mapping not only its density, but what makes it conducive to habitation or less appealing as a living space.  Could we map the shifts in aggregate population density to investigate patterns of land value, to examine the rise of prices in New York and in regions of uneven density of population spread out within large cities?  One point here would be to chart the spaces made and created in individual cities over time that informed property prices by creating new models of the habitability of the same spaces and of urban life.   To do so, I’ll use maps to illuminate shifting attitudes to space.

Before considering urban geographies, it’s interesting to map a distribution of the predominance of bars to grocery stores in a cute map that I can’t resist–with surprising concentration, the number of bars exceeded grocery stores in urban areas clustered in the Midwest and parts of New England, and areas of the plain states and spots of the Southwest.  It would be interesting to pursue this map into urban areas–does the prevalence of bars over grocery stores suggest a greater role in serving neighborhoods, or a preference for the social function that bars serve in specific urban or rural regions?

Grocery Stores v. Bars

The map may tell us about a culture of sociability–in the colder midwestern north, and New England, bars are important sites of aggregation.  The map speaks about how folks create habitability in urban space in response to different constraints.  We can use this model, more importantly, and this will be the end of the post, to expand the criteria by which we look at urban spaces beyond density that can help raise new questions about the relationships between property value and urban milieu.

Others might reveal the increased livability of different spaces within the city, as this map of the green spaces in New York City, perhaps the city that possesses the densest urban core, in ways that map urban resettlement outside the region of its greatest densities by the foundation of community gardens and urban agriculture, discussed in an earlier post, which notes those places that accept volunteers by blue dots:

 

Community Gardens NYC region

 

The map reveals not only an expanding urban green-space, but the re-envisioning of densely occupied areas as of more livable urban spaces, in ways that mapping population density or aggregate density alone don’t suggest.

Still other maps of urban environments reveal the constraints on the very maps we make of urban space that are so central to housing prices–a process perhaps missing from Krugman’s discussion of two attitudes to the analysis of land-value.    Maps are a central tools of real estate to attract attention to  property and shape urban space into neighborhoods, and fit notions of habitability into existing spaces.  Many structures define these spaces of habitability, not necessarily understood in terms of weighted density alone.  Los Angeles is not, as Krugman’s piece suggests,  “hemmed in” by mountains that constrain city’s sprawl; its low density seems to run out to the Valleys, as freeways define the urban space and create  anew map of property values and more habitable and valuable land.  It almost seems land properties rise in their remove from the freeway, where the relation of land to freeway is more easily mapped, much as much of the value of land in Santa Monica seems to recede in value from the Pacific. Freeways or overpasses divide urban space and help structure maps of habitability; freeways of easy commute may, conversely, increase the value of hived off aggregations of “edge” cities, by improving connectedness to other environments.

We can map moreover habitability in different ways.  Cities like Oakland CA offer a sort of counter-example of a space where habitability set off a rapid rise of real estate values and the price of land:  there is no clear confine to urban space, but the spread of restaurants, green spaces, farmers’ markets, urban farms, and open public spaces fashioned a new notion of the inhabitability of distinct areas of its urban space in successive districts, earlier shunned, even when considerable crime continues to plague nearby parts of the city and the city hears the screaming sirens of police racing to the victim or scene of a homicide.  (If some would say real estate prices derive from the flight from the property values of San Francisco, that only seems to be the icing on the cake.)

The value of land is not a simple calculus of limited supply, but of the mapping of urban space–first taken up by real estate agents who sculpted Oakland’s neighborhoods, but informed first by a shifting sense of the habitability of the land, whether in the middle of an old port-city or the more trendy area of the Temescal.  Demographics prefer different models of habitability; the age of the population of Oakland seems exceptionally low, for example, as they might first define the city as more habitable.  The shift of populations toward less densely settled urban areas reflects this shift in how we have come to map habitability, one might say, even if aggregates of population density reflect land value; without numerical data to show for it, I  offer that the value of land reflects the relative scarcity of habitable areas in urban space, but also shifts as notions of habitability emerge.  In New York, the premium on habitability drives the growth of new neighborhoods, from the allure of Soho or the East Village to Brooklyn Heights as more habitable than more crowded urban environments.  Imaginative ways to map public spaces create habitability in urban regions; the lack of parks in Los Angeles fuels a somewhat undifferentiated urban expansion and settlement.

But there are huge obstacles to mapping the habitability of space in the very regions and cities that habitability might be encouraged, as we find habitability to become, in much of California, the preserve of the wealthier few, and urban spaces constrained by barriers to their physical improvement.  Take a simple map of the distribution of parks in the state, and reveals radical differences between the parks/inhabitants: the polemic map ties park-poor areas to income, contrasting darker greens to show greater availability of acreage/thousand inhabitants in the San Francisco than Los Angeles areas:

 

map-save-state-parks-for-all-Park-Income-Poor3-790x1023

 

Income variations allow the possibility of a flexible and inventive relation to maps of habitable space–as the clumping together in aggregates or scarcity of desired urban lands reveals.   As we become more movable in our work, and develop a more flexible notion to workspace, this shifts the relations of local routines of personal and work space, and there is considerable choice about the spaces where we live:  workspace is less dense in different cities, to be sure, as silicon valley or other IT belts like the Research Triangle around Durham NC, but the premium on the flexibility of defining one’s own model of habitability seems to determine the new urban geography Krugman describes.  Further anecdotal evidence, beyond the United States but in North America, might point to the shifting geography in urban Ottawa, where the residential Glebe was distinguished by rising residential real estate.   Within the shifting infrastructural map of the city, one maps one’s own personal space.  Indeed, the bizarre settling of San Francisco’s sky-rocketing real estate prices is partly driven by the arrival of highly paid executives working in Silicon Valley, shuttled to their work in select buses whose routes allow them to select an alternative to public transit, as discussed in an earlier post.  The paths of flights into San Diego, to use another example, skirt more select residential areas like Mission Bay, create a zone marred by the rumble and whine of overhead airplanes.  And the organization of urban space no longer reflects how we map and understand urban geographies as habitable–or come to dismiss them as simply uninhabitable and worth less.

Only by balancing what maps tell us about how an urban region gains value for its habitability can we effectively broaden the discussion and use maps to measure inhabitability against degrees of uninhabitability and will we be able to extend the critical evaluation of value beyond questions of supply and demand.

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Filed under human geography, infographic, mapping density, Mapping Park Poor Neighborhoods, Oakland CA, relative density, urban geography, urban growth, Urban Livability