Colleges Help Ithaca Thrive in a Region of Struggles

August 8, 2013

By: Jesse McKinley
Via: The New York Times

ITHACA, N.Y. — In many ways, this city is not so special. It has a nice lake, some attractive houses with lawns, and a couple of colleges. But many places in upstate New York have lakes and lawns and places of high learning.

What most sets this city of 30,000 apart from many of its neighbors these days is what is absent: fear for its future.

Led by a young mayor with an inspiring back story and an idealist’s approach — he talks about sidewalks in philosophical terms — Ithaca is the upstate exception: a successful liberal enclave in a largely conservative region troubled by unemployment woes, declining or stagnant population, and post-Detroit talk of bankruptcy.

“It’s like a little San Francisco,” Nicole Roulstin, 32, an Ithaca resident, said recently, “or the Berkeley of the East.”

Much of that optimism comes from a reciprocal relationship with two institutions — Cornell University and, to a lesser degree, Ithaca College — which have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy and created thousands of jobs for everyone from professors to landscapers, and also fostered new companies. Ithaca and its home county, Tompkins, regularly post the lowest unemployment rate in the state. In June, Ithaca’s was 5.7 percent, tied with another college city, Saratoga Springs, where a racetrack drives an annual summer boom.

Ithaca’s model of education as an economic engine is one that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has made a priority this year as a strategy for all of upstate, where there are dozens of universities. In June, he signed a bill that would allow State University of New York branches and some private schools to offer tax-free zones for new businesses that open on or adjacent to campuses.

Ithaca’s mayor, Svante L. Myrick, who was invited to speak alongside the governor when he promoted the plan in May, playfully challenged other leaders of Ivy League cities in the Northeast to come to his. “And I’ll show you how we built in Ithaca the lowest unemployment rate in the state,” he said, adding that the city had been successful “because our universities have partnered with our private industries,” and did not just rely on businesses selling “sandwiches and beds” to visitors and students.

Ithaca has used the deep intellectual bench of its neighboring colleges and community entrepreneurs to help create everything from skateboard companies to high-tech start-ups, an approach to job creation that has attracted the admiration of nearby municipalities.

“They’ve been able to cross over the barrier from nonprofit and transition into a for-profit entrepreneurial model, which is not an easy task,” said Stephanie A. Miner, the mayor of Syracuse, about 45 miles to the north. “We’ve done it as well, but we don’t have the kind of penetration that Ithaca has.”

Institutional support for new business, Ms. Miner added, also attracts investors unconnected to the schools. “When you look at the venture capitalists that are in upstate New York or that are investing in upstate New York, always first, in the areas that that money is going to, is Ithaca,” she said.

Blessed with physical beauty, vineyards and cultural attractions, the city and the county have also benefited from ample tourism, something the governor has promoted as central to any upstate renaissance. Ithaca’s population basically doubles during the school year, and the city has many residents whose own college days are not far behind them; the median age in the city’s core and immediate suburbs is 26 — the same age as Mr. Myrick.

Jean McPheeters, president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, said Mr. Myrick had impressed her by meeting with city and county leaders the first week that he took office in January 2012, and by pushing for efforts to change zoning to allow for greater building heights. “Svante has been a great friend to the business community,” she said.

A self-described “pragmatic progressive,” Mr. Myrick has been active in reorganizing the police force, restructuring city government and attracting $200 million in new development to the city, including a multimillion-dollar overhaul of its central commons.

At the same time, he fervently preaches the benefits of car sharing, locally grown food and affordable housing. He shares a house with four roommates near Cornell and takes the bus to City Hall downtown, where tattoo parlors, coffee shops and used-record stores are neighbors to upscale restaurants and shops.

“This is the classic place where you have baristas with Ph.D.’s,” said Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, a nonprofit development group. “You have people with incredible skill sets who choose to remain here.”

Sure enough, Thomas R. Rochon, president of Ithaca College, said his school often employs graduates from its bigger, friendly rival. “Some fraction of our faculty are from Cornell,” he said. His college, which has an enrollment of about 6,750, has also poured big money into local construction, including a new $65 million athletics center that opened in 2011.

About half the city’s residents over age 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, said Robert M. Simpson, the president of the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, a 12-county economic development organization. He added that Cornell and the city as a whole had been “increasingly successful in translating that into patents, license income and start-ups,” which in turn create jobs for local residents.

Mary G. Opperman, vice president for human resources and safety services at Cornell, said the university has two centers devoted to fostering businesses: the Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization, which manages licenses for a range of tech and other inventions, and the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences. But the school also plans to work more directly with the city itself and to open a business incubator downtown this year.

“Our success is very much tied to the success of Ithaca,” Ms. Opperman said.

Soft-spoken and slyly funny, Mr. Myrick is a striking success story. Living in the tiny town of Earlville, N.Y., he overcame a childhood that included stints living in shelters and sometimes sleeping in a family car. His father struggled with drug abuse, and his mother raised him and his three siblings on minimum-wage jobs, with help from his grandparents.

Mr. Myrick, whose mother is white and whose father is African-American, said he vividly remembers reading about Barack Obama as a teenager.

“I thought, ‘Holy moly,’” Mr. Myrick said. “Here’s this guy, he’s mixed race, he’s got a funny name, he’s just like me. And it made me think I could go to a good school. I could do something.”

Still, he said he was thrilled when Cornell accepted him — “I was a middling student,” he recalled, “with very good standardized scores” — and began to get involved in the community shortly after coming to Ithaca in 2005, eventually getting elected to the City Council in 2007 at age 20. In 2011, he was persuaded to run for mayor. His friend and fellow Cornell alumnus, Nathan I. Shinagawa, was chairman of his campaign. (He is one of Mr. Myrick’s roommates.)

Housing, in fact, is an issue that Mr. Myrick said Ithaca still needs to address. He also worries about crime — “When you’re the mayor, any crime is too much crime” — and budget issues. “There’s still not enough money,” he said.

Then, too, is the issue of the city’s sidewalks, which have long been paid for by owners with adjacent property. Mr. Myrick has instead proposed a system to maintain sidewalks that would be paid for by all property owners, something he said that speaks to the larger issue of social responsibility. “And once we figure out what the responsibility is,” he said, “how can we fairly mete out justice?”

Such high-mindedness — and Ithaca’s seemingly steady prosperity through hard times — has attracted attention to Mr. Myrick’s own political future, something he deflects, saying that keeping Ithaca running is his only job.

“I still to this day don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up,” he said.

Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities

July 9, 2013

By: Nick Bilton
Via: The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — By now, seeing one of Google’s experimental, driverless cars zipping down Silicon Valley’s Highway 101, or parking itself on a San Francisco street, is not all that unusual. Indeed, as automakers like Audi, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz make plans for self-driving vehicles, it is only a matter of time before such cars become a big part of the great American traffic jam.

While driverless cars might still seem like science fiction outside the Valley, the people working and thinking about these technologies are starting to ask what these autos could mean for the city of the future. The short answer is “a lot.”

Imagine a city where you don’t drive in loops looking for a parking spot because your car drops you off and scoots off to some location to wait, sort of like taxi holding pens at airports. Or maybe it is picked up by a robotic minder and carted off with other vehicles, like a row of shopping carts.

Inner-city parking lots could become parks. Traffic lights could be less common because hidden sensors in cars and streets coordinate traffic. And, yes, parking tickets could become a rarity since cars would be smart enough to know where they are not supposed to be.

As scientists and car companies forge ahead — many expect self-driving cars to become commonplace in the next decade — researchers, city planners and engineers are contemplating how city spaces could change if our cars start doing the driving for us. There are risks, of course: People might be more open to a longer daily commute, leading to even more urban sprawl.

That city of the future could have narrower streets because parking spots would no longer be necessary. And the air would be cleaner because people would drive less. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 30 percent of driving in business districts is spent in a hunt for a parking spot, and the agency estimates that almost one billion miles of driving is wasted that way every year.

“What automation is going to allow is repurposing, both of spaces in cities, and of the car itself,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who specializes in robotics and drones.

Harvard University researchers note that as much as one-third of the land in some cities is devoted to parking spots. Some city planners expect that the cost of homes will fall as more space will become available in cities. If parking on city streets is reduced and other vehicles on roadways become smaller, homes and offices will take up that space. Today’s big-box stores and shopping malls require immense areas for parking, but without those needs, they could move further into cities.

The Autonomous Intersection Management project, created by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, imagines cities where traffic lights no longer exist but sensors direct the flow of traffic. Although a video showing off the automated traffic intersection looks like total chaos, the researchers insist that such intersections will reduce congestion and fuel costs and can allow cars to drive through cities without stopping.

Of course, getting to a utopian city will take a little longer than circling the block looking for a spot. A spokesman for Audi said a fully automated car would not be available until the end of the decade. And the regulatory issues to be addressed before much of this could come true are, to put it mildly, forbidding.

But the pieces are starting to fall into place, at least enough to excite future-minded thinkers. Last year, Jerry Brown, the governor of California, signed legislation paving the way for driverless cars in California, making it the third state to explicitly allow the cars on the road. And federal agencies are starting to consider their impact. In May the Transportation Department made its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles, encouraging cities to allow testing of driverless cars.

But to some, this promise — or overpromise as the case may be — sounds familiar.

“The future city is not going to be a congestion-free environment. That same prediction was made that cars would free cities from the congestion of horses on the street,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and a member of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. “You have to build the sewer system to accommodate the breaks during the Super Bowl; it won’t be as pretty as we’re envisioning.”

Mr. Smith has an alternative vision of the impact of automated cars, which he believes are inevitable. Never mind that nice city center. He says that driverless cars will allow people to live farther from their offices and that the car could become an extension of home.

“I could sleep in my driverless car, or have an exercise bike in the back of the car to work out on the way to work,” he said. “My time spent in my car will essentially be very different.”

“Driverless cars won’t appear in a vacuum,” Mr. Smith said. Other predictions for the future city imagine fewer traditional-looking cars. Taking their place will be drones and robots that deliver goods.

Oh, and that food-delivery car double-parked outside? That, Mr. Calo said, will be replaced by a delivery drone.

Grocery Store Geography

July 2, 2013

By: Nathan Yau
Via: Flowing Data

I’ve been poking around grocery store locations, courtesy of AggData, the past few days.

There’s a grocery store just about everywhere you go in the United States, because, well, we gotta eat. They look similar in that they sell produce on one side, meat in the back, and snacks and soda on the side opposite the produce. Magazines and small candies are carefully situated at eye-level by the cash registers. There’s usually a deli counter and prepared foods near the bread section. And yet, despite the generic format and layout, these stores can remind us of places and specific periods of our lives.

When I was a kid, I’d go to Save Mart and you’d get hit with the aroma of cupcakes and fresh bread from the bakery right at the entrance. They had cake samples at the counter, which was too high for me to reach, so my mom would grab me a piece. I totally get the “like a fat kid loves cake” line.

In college, I went to Safeway, and they had this magical barrier around the parking lot that prevented carts from rolling away and to deter people from stealing them. There always seemed to be homeless guy grasping a bottle held in a paper bag. It was probably milk. Two 12-packs of soda for five bucks? Yes, please.

When I was in Buffalo, I went to Wegmans. Somehow it was busy almost any time I went but the lines were almost always short. They had good, inexpensive grapefruit juice.

Then there’s the Targets and Walmarts, which are ubiquitous and seem to remind you of everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

It’s fun to poke around at these memories. What do your grocery stores remind you of?

The maps above show grocery stores with at least two hundred locations in the United States. I used a dissimilarity index and k-means for categorization, which popped out geographic distributions more or less. More to come.

In Houston, America’s Diverse Future Has Already Arrived

By: Elise Hu
Via: NPR

All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.

To see the speed of demographic change in Texas, look no further than its largest city — Houston. Only 40 percent of the city’s population is non-Hispanic white, and by a Rice University count, it’s the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America.

“Houston is an immigrant magnet,” says Glenda Joe, a Chinese-Texan community organizer whose extended family came to Houston in the 1880s.

“Texas looks like me. I’m half-Chinese; I’m half-Irish,” she says. “I also do business; I work with universities; I also ride horses. That’s what Texas is.”

At about 35 percent of the population, Latinos make up the second-biggest group in Houston after non-Hispanic whites or Anglos, according to Census numbers. But Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing group — doubling between the 1990 and 2010 census to about 7 percent.

“There is no majority group here, not even close,” says Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist who studies Houston’s demographic change. He and his research partners put together the 2012 analysis that gave Houston the title of most diverse metropolitan area in America. If you look at the four major ethnic groups — Anglo, black, Asian and Latino — all have substantial numbers in Houston, with no one group dominating. It comes closer to having an equal balance of each group than you would find in New York or Los Angeles.

The city’s transformation to an international megalopolis happened quickly, and only within the past few decades. As the metro area shot to nearly 6 million people, 93 percent of all that growth was non-white.

“Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S., in terms of ethnic diversity and immigration flows,” Emerson says. “So it is fundamentally transformed in a way that all of America shall transform.”

Jobs fuel the transformation. The energy industry remains a huge player, but there’s also the Texas Medical Center, burgeoning biotech and a bustling shipping port. Despite crippling humidity, long commutes and a reputation for refineries, Houston’s cheap land, affordable homes and low barriers to doing business have lured immigrants from all over.

“You are here to make your fortune; you are here to move ahead in the world. You are about making things happen. There’s no way that you could be a leader here in this community and not recognize that,” says Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is a minority among politicians. She’s the only female mayor among the top 10 most populous cities, and she’s one of the only openly gay politicians, period. And she’s learned a few lessons about governing a place where different cultures combine.

“Too often what happens in a state capital or in Washington is that it is about parties and partisanship, not about the practical realities of running something. Cities have to run,” Parker says.

For her, running the place means embracing the sociological situation. Houston is remarkably practical that way. Just ask seventh-generation Chinese-Houstonian Glenda Joe.

“It’s inexorable. The change in terms of leadership, the change in terms of how we look — it’s inexorable,” Joe says.

The 10 Fittest Cities In America

June 25, 2013

By: Ben Schiller
Via: Fast Company

If you’re looking for a healthy place to live, Minneapolis-St. Paul is probably a good choice. Despite heavy snow in the winter, it has a relatively high level of exercise–76% of people say they worked out in the last 30 days–and a high number of sports facilities (including the highest number of baseball diamonds per capita: 5.1 per 10,000 people).

The American Fitness Index, published by the American College of Sports Medicine, factors in both the health of the population (health behaviors, chronic disease, etc.) as well as environmental indicators–like recreational facilities, and whether people bike and walk to work–into its rankings. Twenty-six health and physical activity experts decided on the categories. The data is from the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Census, among other sources.

The 10 fittest cities:
• Minneapolis-St. Paul
• Washington D.C
• Portland, Oregon
• San Francisco
• Denver
• Boston
• Sacramento, California
• Seattle
• Hartford, Connecticut
• San Jose, California

A.C.S.M. sees the goal of the index as helping to “improve the health of the nation by promoting active lifestyles by supporting local programming to develop a sustainable, healthy community culture.”

Minneapolis-St. Paul, which also won in 2012 and 2011, scored 78.2 out of 100 total points (up from 76.4 last year). Washington D.C scored 77.7, while Portland came in at 69.8. They all have relatively low rates of diabetes and heart disease, and higher spending on things like parks and tennis courts.

San Francisco (68.7), Denver, Colorado (68.1), Boston (67.1), Sacramento, California (66.8), Seattle (66.7), Hartford, Connecticut (66.6), and San Jose, California (66.4) round out the top 10. (Several, including Seattle and Sacramento, actually lost ground from last year’s survey).

The bottom three are Oklahoma City (31.2), Detroit (33.6), and San Antonio, Texas (31.2). Oklahoma City can blame its score on a relatively high level of smoking and obesity.

The ranking looks at the 50 most populous metropolitan regions, including suburbs as well as the area within city limits (“Metropolitan Statistical Areas“). So “New York,” for example, also includes parts of New Jersey.

Want to check out the full rankings? The fitness index web site has a nice interactive “quick view” feature here.

10 Reasons Why So Many People Are Moving To Texas

June 12, 2013

By: Tom Geoghegan
Via: BBC News Magazine

Half of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the US are in Texas, according to new figures. Why?

Every way you look at it, there are a lot of people moving to Texas.

Five of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country between 2011 and 2012 were in Texas, according to new figures from the US Census Bureau. New York is way out in front in terms of added population, but Houston is second with San Antonio and Austin fourth and fifth.

In terms of percentage growth, it’s even more Texas, Texas, Texas. Among the five cities that grew most, as a proportion of their size, between 2011 and 2012, three are Texan. San Marcos is out in front with the highest rate of growth among all US cities and towns – 4.9%.

Some of this Texan population boom is due to a natural increase – more births than deaths – but the numbers moving into the state from elsewhere in the US and from abroad far outstrip every other American state. Why?

In terms of percentage growth, it’s even more Texas, Texas, Texas. Among the five cities that grew most, as a proportion of their size, between 2011 and 2012, three are Texan. San Marcos is out in front with the highest rate of growth among all US cities and towns – 4.9%.

Some of this Texan population boom is due to a natural increase – more births than deaths – but the numbers moving into the state from elsewhere in the US and from abroad far outstrip every other American state. Why?

1. Jobs

“I don’t think people go for the weather or topography,” says Joel Kotkin, professor of urban development at Chapman University in Orange, California. “The main reason people go is for employment. It’s pretty simple.

“The unconventional oil and gas boom has helped turn Texas into an economic juggernaut, particularly world energy capital Houston, but growth has also been strong in tech, manufacturing and business services.”

Critics have questioned whether the “Texas miracle” is a myth, based on cheap labour and poor regulation.

But Kotkin says Texas has plenty of high-wage, blue-collar jobs and jobs for university graduates, although people looking for very high-wage jobs would probably head to Seattle, San Francisco and New York.

Four of the top 10 metropolitan areas for job growth in 2013 are in Texas, according to Kotkin’s website, New Geography.

Texas also has a huge military presence, which grew as defence spending increased in the decade after 9/11. Many retired Texans first came to the state as service personnel.

2. It’s cheaper

Once employed, it’s hugely important that your pay cheque goes as far as possible, says Kotkin.

“New York, LA and the [San Francisco] Bay Area are too expensive for most people to live, but Houston has the highest ‘effective’ pay cheque in the country.”

Kotkin came to this conclusion after looking at the average incomes in the country’s 51 largest metro areas, and adjusting them for the cost of living. His results put three Texan areas in the top 10.

Houston is top because of the region’s relatively low cost of living, including consumer prices, utilities and transport costs and, most importantly, housing prices, he says.,br>
“The ratio of the median home price to median annual household income in Houston is only 2.9. In San Francisco, it’s 6.7.

“In New York, San Francisco and LA, if you’re blue-collar you will be renting forever and struggling to make ends meet. But people in Texas have a better shot at getting some of the things associated with middle-class life.”

3. Homes

Land is cheaper than elsewhere and the process of land acquisition very efficient, says Dr Ali Anari, research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University.

“From the time of getting a building permit right through to the construction of homes, Texas is much quicker than other states.

“There is an abundant supply of land and fewer regulations and more friendly government, generally a much better business attitude here than other states.”

This flexibility, plus strict lending rules, helped to shield the state from the recent housing market crash.

4. Low tax

Texas is one of only seven states where residents pay no personal state income tax, says Kay Bell, contributing tax editor at Bankrate and Texan native.

The state has a disproportionate take from property taxes, which has become a big complaint among homeowners, she adds. But overall, only five states had a lower individual tax burden than Texas, according to Tax Foundation research.

There are also tax incentives for businesses and this week legislators cut more than $1bn off proposed business taxes.

5. Pick your own big city

Texas has six of the country’s 20 biggest cities, says Erica Grieder, author of Big, Hot, Cheap and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas.

Contrast this to, for example, Illinois, where if you want to live in a big city you can live in Chicago or you have to move out of state, she says.

But if you’re in Texas you can be in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, or El Paso.

6. Austin in particular

Restaurant manager Christopher Hislop, 33, moved in 2007 from Los Angeles to Austin, where he met his wife and they now have a nine-month-old boy.

“I came to Austin for a wedding and thought it was a really cool city and the people were nice – it was everything that LA wasn’t but still had that hip vibe without pretension. The nightlife is great and there’s an emphasis on getting out and about – they maintain trailways and nature.

“It’s not Texas at all and that’s what I liked about it. I don’t know Texas very well, I grew up in Chicago, but Austin is not Texas because you think of 10-gallon hats and guys on horseback. It’s a cliché but Austin isn’t like that, it’s hip and in the now. The rest of Texas is very conservative.”

People like to perpetuate a myth that Austin is still the Austin it once was, says Joshua Long, author of Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas. So as it’s become a big city, a movement has developed to “keep it cool, keep it weird and keep it environmentally friendly”.

7. Family-friendly

Because of its good-value housing, Texas has been particularly popular with families, and some of its cities now have an above-average number of children. San Antonio is home to the largest community of gay parents.

In Texas, you can have a reasonable mortgage and pretty good schools, says Grieder. And restaurants are invariably family-friendly.

“You hear about the high drop-out rate but Texas education scores pretty well at national tests for 4th and 8th graders in math, reading and science. The aggregate is about average.

“The perception is that Texas has poor schools but it’s not correct. Across the country in general, we don’t have schools as good as we would like them to be.”

In eighth-grade maths, for instance, Texas scored higher than the national average and outscored the three other big states of California, New York and Florida. On Sunday, an education budget was approved that restored cuts made in 2011.

8. Fewer rules

“Texas is liberal in the classic sense, it’s laissez-faire, so there’s a lack of regulations,” says Grieder, and this can apply to the obvious (business regulations) or the less obvious (city rules).

“The classic social contract is – we’re not going to do a ton to help you but we’re not going to get in your way. That’s not 100% true of the state but there’s that strand in the state.”

Mortgage lending is an obvious exception. But there has been strong opposition to banning texting while driving and a proposed tax on soda.

And Governor Rick Perry is poised to sign off the strongest email privacy laws in the US, which would require state law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before accessing emails.

9. Texans are normal people

The state likes to proclaim itself as an unpretentious, down-to-earth place where people are easy to get along with.

As John Steinbeck wrote: “Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America.”

And for people with conservative values, it could be a natural home, although demographic shifts have prompted speculation it will be a Democratic state in the future.

People dream about moving to California, but they don’t dream about moving to Texas, says Grieder, yet many of those reluctant to move there end up liking it.

She adds: “[They] realise that Texans aren’t all Bible thumping, gun-toting people. The job is the trigger to come but you find it’s pretty nice to live here.”

10. And they’re not going anywhere

All this doesn’t just bring in new arrivals – native Texans aren’t leaving the state either. It is the “stickiest” state in the country, according to the latest figures from the Pew Research Center, which suggest that more than three-quarters of adults born in Texas still live there. Alaska is the least sticky.