Introducing the Localism Index

Localism Index for 100 Largest MSAs

Here you can see the overall results of the 2015 Localism Index by metro area, where red corresponds to highest scores and yellow corresponds to lowest. Find the interactive version of this map here.

Introduction

In an age in which data is used ubiquitously to measure and analyze society (it’s what I do here regularly), it is important to recognize that numbers and metrics are always infused with implicit values. This is something we must remember when we are faced with facts or rankings of any sort; even simple statistics can rarely be presented without any sort of bias or narrative. This isn’t exactly a bad thing; narratives help us derive meaning from the world, but narratives and biases can become dangerous when we grow so accustomed to them that we approach them with thoughtless acceptance. I would even go so far as to assert that every metric and every piece of data is flawed; it is not the metrics which are most flawed of which we should be wary, but the ones with flaws we’ve ceased to recognize (GDP is one of these metrics. For further discussion about this, see my post on my senior thesis). Because of these issues, I strive in my work to constantly assess and shape the values implicit in data for the benefit of human well-being. In this vein, I have worked off and on for the past year to produce a new sort of ranking system for American cities. I’d like to introduce it to you now: the 2015 Localism Index. Continue reading

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Freakonomics and the Jevons Paradox

bulb-15629_1280Do Energy Efficiency Improvements Make Us Use More Energy?

I was quite intrigued this week by the latest podcast offering from Freakonomics. Aside from their somewhat insulting “discovery” that the study of the environment isn’t diametrically opposed to that of economics (a conversation for another day), they put forward an engaging analysis of the effectiveness of energy efficiency. Their discussion centered around the work of Arik Levinson, an economist at Georgetown University. The gist of Freakonomics’ argument, based on Levinson’s work, is that California’s 1978 residential energy efficiency regulations did not result in a decrease in per capita electricity use, and that the differences between energy use in California and other states can be explained by a particular manifestation of the rebound effect: the Jevons paradox.

The podcast chronicles Levinson’s research on the impacts of these building codes, which was recently published in a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. For the study, Levinson analyzed data around California’s housing regulations in three different ways. He says it best in his own words:

First, I compare[d] current electricity use by California homes of different vintages constructed under different standards, controlling for home size, local weather, and tenant characteristics. Second, I examine[d] how electricity in California homes varies with outdoor temperatures for buildings of different vintages. And third, I compare[d] electricity use for buildings of different vintages in California, which has stringent building energy codes, to electricity use for buildings of different vintages in other states.  All three approaches yield[d] the same answer: there is no evidence that homes constructed since California instituted its building energy codes use less electricity today than homes built before the codes came into effect.

Continue reading

About the Portfolio: Last Minute Christmas Gift Edition (Rose Mountain Butcher Shoppe Impact Assessment)

The summary in numbers of the impact and context of Ann Rose's shop

In July of this year I was contracted by Heifer International to help them assess the impact of one of their grants.  The grant was to help a local North Carolina farmer start up a butcher shop in Lansing, NC. Lansing is officially listed as a town, but could more accurately be described as a village. Its population has never quite reached 300 and currently sits at around 160, having lost 44% of its population since 1960. While it still has its fair bit of mountain charm, there just hasn’t been enough happening in Lansing in recent years to keep residents sticking around. The grant from Heifer and the opening of the butcher shop has been instrumental in helping them achieve a sustainable economic recovery, though the effects may not be seen instantly.

How much, after all, can one tiny shop really do to change a community? The answer, in this case, is a little bit of everything. Continue reading

About the Portfolio: From Brownfields to Development Opportunities

Photo courtesy of the Ohio Office of Redevelopment under a Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

A brownfield site in Sandusky, Ohio. Photo from the Ohio Office of Redevelopment, Creative Commons License

Today’s topic is one that is very important in the world of economic development and urban planning, but not well understood outside of those realms.  When I worked for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) in Indianapolis last year, one of our primary concerns as a community development organization was the the decline of the urban core of the city.  The heart of downtown remains flush with business headquarters, government buildings, sports complexes and tourist destinations, but the areas immediately surrounding this central district have been in various states of decline for awhile. Indianapolis is like other Midwestern cities in that the many of its properties that used to be the focal points of manufacturing and business prosperity lie as vacant eyesores in areas adjacent to the downtown area. While population migration is perhaps the biggest cause of today’s vacancies, brownfield properties are both a driver of that population migration and an obstacle to economic prosperity for the residents who remain.

What are Brownfields?

Perhaps brownfield properties are little-known because they’re largely invisible.  A brownfield, by the EPA’s definition, is any property for which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. These properties could be former industrial facilities, laundromats, car dealerships, or many other things, and chances are that you’ve passed quite a few without even knowing it.  In fact, according to Government Accountability Office estimates, there is one brownfield for approximately every 745 people in the United States:

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that there are as many as 425,000 Brownfields throughout the U.S. Some estimates show that there are 5 million acres of abandoned industrial sites in our nation’s cities – roughly the same amount of land occupied by 60 of our largest cities. Some estimate that as much as $2 trillion of real estate is undervalued due to the presence of contamination.

To put this statistic in perspective, the number of fast food restaurants in the United States is estimated at between 264,000 and 232,000, depending on who you ask. So there are nearly twice as many brownfields in the United States as fast food locations. Just imagine if each time you passed by a fast food restaurant it was accompanied by two old rotting industrial facilities or weed-filled parking lots with a few rusted out cars in the back.   Continue reading

About the Portfolio: Predictors of Well-Being in High Income, Industrialized Countries and Their Related Effects

To kick off the blog, I plan on starting by explaining my portfolio of project experience.  The first item in this portfolio, chronologically at least, is my senior thesis from Purdue.  This thesis, titled “Predictors of Well-Being in High Income, Industrialized Countries and Their Related Effects,” earned me the Alan Hess Award as one of the top two graduating seniors in Purdue’s economics program. I won’t go into too much detail about the motivation behind the thesis, but I will just say that I have long felt that GDP is not such an adequate measure of the health of a country as it’s often made out to be, and this thesis was a response to the search for alternative measures of progress.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to promote alternatives to GDP (Such as: the Genuine Progress Indicator, the Human Development Index, the Ecological Footprint, The Happy Planet Index, and Gross National Happiness), and many before me have given this movement ammunition by studying well-being at both personal and national levels.  A good synopsis of the breadth of research on this topic can be found in Alois Stutzer and Bruno S. Frey’s report here. It has been pretty widely established by now that the relationship between per capita GDP and a country’s well-being (as measured by subjective surveys) is logarithmic, that is, countries see dramatic increases in well-being as GDP initially rises, but each further increase in GDP brings about progressively smaller increases in well-being.  This makes sense; a five dollar bill is worth less to a millionaire than a beggar. The following chart from Ronald Inglehart (simplistically) further illustrates this transition: that after basic needs are met through economic growth, individuals do not see as much gain in well-being from improvements in income and “Non-economic aspects of life become increasingly important influences on how long, and how well, people live.” Lifestyle vs SurvivalAs a resident of a world where very few people have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, this economic-to-lifestyle transition feels very real to me.  Inglehart’s hypothesis seems true to my own life experiences, but I didn’t just want trust his word.   For my senior economics thesis, I decided to build upon this hypothesis and the research reviewed above, seeing what the data had to say to either confirm or deny what was instinctively true to me. Continue reading

Why Honeycomb Commons?

CSIRO ScienceImage 7113 Honey bee comb showing cells

Last night I shared a campfire with a Floridian, an Israeli, and a Frenchman, all of whom have traveled and now live in other parts of the world, and the thought occurred to me: I could pick no more an exciting time in all of human history to be alive than right now, in this moment. In this globalized, interconnected world, we have never had more possibilities available to us and yet, I believe, our problems have never been more complex. It is this tension that I hope to enter into with this blog and organization, with the motivation that is encapsulated in the following question: How can we move into the future as a society globally (but especially locally) with both an awareness of our mistakes and fallibility as a human species and a sense of collective optimism about another world that is possible?

But what makes today’s problems so complex? Continue reading