6.11.12

Today on Streets.mn: Do Sidewalks Turn People Into Democrats?

I wrote an election-related piece for Streets.mn today, about why sidewalks make good predictors of political voting habits. The basic question is this: why do Democrats overwhelmingly found in places with sidewalks? Do Democrats flock to sidewalk-laden neighborhoods? Or do sidewalks foster and create Democratic values?

Here's one side of the coin, from my piece:
On the one hand, you can argue that politically left-leaning people prefer sidewalks, and choose to move into neighborhoods that have them. (Meanwhile, libertarian conservatives prefer large houses on the edge of the city.) People move into neighborhoods which match their ideologies and aesthetics, and over time, both groups “self-select” and segregate across the metro area. In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop describes exactly this phenomenon, how US cities have become more segregated over the past 30 years. (Back in 1976, only 27% of voters lived in so-called “landslide counties,” uncompetitive neighborhoods where the vast majority of people voted for one candidate. Today that number is over half.)
More and more, people live in places where the vast majority of people agree with each other. And for left-leaning folks, that means places iwth sidewalks. Sidewalks serve as a classic symbol of urban togetherness. Sidewalks represent an image of society involving dog-walking and diversity. Sidewalks attract Obama supporters. On the other hand, for a tea party libertarian, a sidewalk is like garlic to a vampire. No self-respecting free-market kool-aid vendor would be caught dead on one, so they stay away, safe and secure out on the edge of town, out in three-car automobile utopia.
It's a question of structure vs. agency. Beginning with founding figures like Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, social science has been attempting to figure out the relationship between individuals and their environments. The big leap that these early sociologists made was to claim that our messy human world was organized by social structures, forces larger than any individual. These broad arrangements -- think of capitalism, the family, or gender -- constantly shape and guide collective behavior.

Architecture is a good example of this tension. Building design, all the homes, cubicles, elevators, and driveways, affect us in a million ways. We can understand a great deal about US society by simply looking at its infrastructure, its freeways and power lines and asphalt and three car garages. Our homes and environments control the kinds of people we can become.

But what about individual agency? Structures may exist in the background, but the actor in every story is the individual making decisions. Society is best understood, not through invisible structures determining our actions, but through individual choices. Our democratic system, our economic system, and our environmental outcomes are predicated on individual choice. But that doesn't stop our environments from shaping us like play-doh.

No comments: