Archive for April, 2009

April 30, 2009

Proximity makes the heart grow fonder

How do friendships form? gives some insight into why mixed neighbourhoods are important. The study, from Marmaros and Sacerdote, researchers from Google and Dartmouth College, tracked the 4.2 million e-mail exchanges between university students for more than a year to identify the social networks they established.

As Dartmouth students are assigned randomly to student residences, the researchers were able to track how factors like geographic proximity, family background, racial identity and shared student activities affected the formation of friendships between students.

The literature explains we are most likely to become close friends with people with whom we have frequent contact.  Fostering friendship with a random stranger further away requires an additional investment of time with no guarantee of a positive pay-off of a close friendship. Marmoros and Sacerdote wanted to test the theory that we are more likely to become close friends with someone with whom we have “lots of local, low cost social interactions.”

In essence, when we see a neighbour regularly, we get a short-term and a long-term benefit: in the immediate interaction, we are provided with the opportunity to exchange information and then, over the course of time, trust is built through reciprocity. Both these benefits can emerge at a fairly low cost to ourselves without a large investment of time or other resources. Random interactions expose us to the possibility of bigger pay-offs.

Marmaros and Sacerdote found such a “neighbourly effect” among the students whom they mapped. Students were more likely to form friendships with those who lived close to them or who shared an activity or class. The effect was lessened if students did not share the same racial or family background, however, the effect was still positive.

A caution from the study:

  • The positive effects on social interaction were only found at fairly close distances, such as among those living on the same floor in a school dorm.

Otherwise shared activities were required to demonstrate significant cross-cultural friendship formation. Even while seen as a broad societal benefit, the authors explained, an individual may be less likely to form a cr0ss-cultural friendship if it is seen as more “costly” in terms of time or additional risk factors. Happily, proximity to each other seems to help overcome the racial barrier.

Two additional noteworthy upsides:

  • Close friendships continued even when students moved further distances from each other. The opportunity to form friendships across a variety of identities, provided by living close to each other, provides a lasting effect. Once friendships are formed, most students found it worth continuing to invest in them.
  • Citing other research and expanding on their own, the authors describe the positive equity effects on the attitudes of white students who live with a Black roommate. While the white students were not more likely to have a larger circle of Black friends (as a result of having one Black friend), they are “more likely to support affirmative action in admissions and societal income redistribution.”
April 28, 2009

Disease and the regenerative power of cities

An appropriate quote, in these pandemic times, from Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cites:

Vital cities have marvoulous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties. Perhaps the most striking example of this ability is the effect that big cities have had on disease. Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors. All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry, telecommuications, public health measures, teaching and research hospitals, ambulances and the like, which people not only in cities but also outside them depend upon for the unending war against premature mortality, are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities. The surplus wealth, the productivity, the close-grained juxtaposition of talents that permit society to support advances such as these are themselves products of our organization into cities, and especially into big and dense cities.

April 24, 2009

City Planner Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs and her cohorts upon the defeat of lower midtown Manhattan expressway

“There is nobody against this – NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS!”

April 19, 2009

The riches that social networks provide

One of my neighbours complained to me recently how the neighbourhood had changed. With the reconstruction of Regent Park, a wave of newcomers had been (dis)placed into the TCHC housing behind his house (also social housing).

“They have no respect for the neighbourhood,” he said, “and they’re causing all kinds of trouble.”

Now on the face of it, Don’s complaint could be seen as a predictable reaction to the arrival of newcomers, however I sympathized with him. This wasn’t a case of NIMBY-ism, because his complaint was really more about bad planning than about “bad” people.

In a hard-hitting article published in The Atlantic last summer, Hanna Rosin explored what happened to residents of large urban housing projects who had been moved to housing in “better neighbourhoods.”

Rosin followed residents of the projects and spoke to academics who were examining the impact of these displacements. She described some foreboding findings:

  • Social problems which had been concentrated in high poverty areas were dispersed into the neighbourhoods where residents found new housing and were more difficult to police. In effect, the bad spread further.
  • Social networks were decimated. Moved to new neighbourhoods, residents lost any long-standing or supportive relations upon which they might have come to rely and were slow to build new ones. In short, the good was lost.

Without supports, either formal or informal, to ease the transition, outcomes were bound to be poor.

Strong social networks build when we live near someone for years, or send our children to the same local school, or meet on a summer stroll past a front porch. Social networks are even more important in a low-income neighbourhood because we share resources among us.

For instance, my neighbour Marlene announced no one needed to buy a bundt pan because she had bought one recently. And, I know, that if I need a ladder, Ming and Doug both have one, or if they need a jigsaw, they can borrow mine. If I lived in another, less well-networked neighbourhood, we each would have faced the choice of buying our own or doing without.

Our new, displaced neighbours were settled here in a strange neighbourhood without these resources, and no provision was made to fill the gap.

I should borrow that bundt pan to make a welcome cake and introduce them to the neighbourhood.

April 11, 2009

Crime: Targeting the few "bad apples"

The police division in which Riverdale and the Beach lies has the second highest Break & Enter rate in the City. Only the downtown core/entertainment area outranked Division 55 during this period (January  – October 2008). (See Toronto Police Service data and the Toronto Star crime maps for the source of this analysis. Another interesting website, allowing individuals to pool their collective knowledge is the Spotcrime website.)

So these high stats make one of the stories buried in the 2005 annual police report all the more interesting.

The Division’s Major Crime Unit developed a program to track serial offenders, out on bail for Break and Enter and other major crimes.

Through the program, police met with offenders and their sureties as they were released from jail and then tracked their bail conditions, making regular follow-up visits weekly.

A regular, rotating list of the Top 15 offenders was maintained. Police found, by tracking these few people, they were able to drop the break-in rate by 38%.

The pattern is reminiscent of the one described by Malcolm Gladwell when he wrote in the New Yorker about Million Dollar Murray, a homeless man who in the final years of his life absorbed a large portion of health, social and police services. Gladwell makes the compelling argument that the most effective use resources is not when they are spread across a population, but when they concentrated on the most needy.

It’s a focused tactic that runs counter-intuitively to our Canadian sense of fairness and universalism; however it’s one now seen in the Province of Ontario’s  poverty reduction strategies, the City of Toronto‘s and United Way‘s Strong Neighbourhood Strategies, and TDSB’s Model Schools for Inner Cities. Each of these strategies brings additional resources to those identified as most in need.

At worst, this tactic prioritizes the vulnerable. As best, it just may work.

April 6, 2009

Ontario School Information Finder

In a bid to improve access to information and individual school accountability, the provincial Ministry of Education made a big misstep. This week, it introduced the Ontario School Information Finder which allows parents (and others so inclined) to comparison shop between shoes, er, schools.

Parents can find schools by name, or even more easily, by typing in their postal codes into the search engine. Then adding additional schools to their shopping cart, school bags, they can select three, hit the “Compare the Schools I selected” button and see how each school compares to the others in two domains: student achievement (as measured by provincial testing) and student demographics (including percentage of students from low income families, recent immigrant families, families with a university level-education and students receiving special education).

“What’s the objection to parents knowing this information?”, a reporter asked me today.

No objection. Parents already have access to this information. It is publicly available through the Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe, probably the most famously, but also through individual school profiles published by school boards, real estate agents, Toronto Life, and even a school board trustee.

However, the problem is the way the Ministry has packaged the data on student achievement and student demographics, as if it were a meaningful measure of a school. Learning the number of immigrants at a school, or the number of low-income kids, only tells you about the “input.” It doesn’t tell you how good the students are and it doesn’t tell you how good the school is, how much learning goes on there. However, it’s very likely that the Ministry website will be used to shop between schools.

When parents choose a school for their child, provincial test scores are probably one of the least reliable measures of a good school (and was part of the reason so many parents resisted the introduction of the EQAO). To be bald, provincial test scores correlate highly (although not absolutely) with student demographics, as the TDSB’s recent work on its Learning Opportunity Index attests. So, if parents choose a school by its test scores, they will likely be choosing a school where wealthier students attend rather than a school where great learning is happening.

Well, maybe peers are important. Higher income kids are three times more likely to go to university then kids in the bottom 10% of income (TDSB report). Isn’t that a good influence? It may be, but there are other considerations.

Social mix strengthens an important civic function of public education. We learn to get along with each other there. Students who attend more homogeneous schools learn alot less about others who are different from them – and, frankly, this is already a problem that occurs in many of Toronto’s schools, as Professor David Hulchanski’s work on the sorting of neighbourhoods by income has shown. A tool like this will accelerate this segregation. (And it is segregation; parents I spoke to in a focus group last year in one upper income neighbourhood worried that their kids only see people of colour at the local corner store and that their kids will not understand diversity in any real or granular sense when they move out of their enclave.)

Given the choice, parents acts for the benefit of their own child, as they should; so if “good” schools are defined, uncritically, as the ones with higher test scores, poor kids will be left further behind. Poor kids will be left further behind because they have fewer options, whether it’s bus fare to travel to “better” schools or parents who know how to hunt through the system. Left unfettered, two streams will emerge: elite schools and “bad” schools.

In a bid to give parents greater free choice, to ensure their own family’s gain, the Ministry has created a tool that gives free rein to individual license without considering our common good. What we will see is greater inequality, and it sounds all too familiar in these economic times.

The common good, the idea that a social mix strengthens us all, is even part of the calculation.

People for Education has been quick off the mark on this one, posting an open letter to the Premier, because the Ministry website undercuts the very foundation of a strong public education system. Parents and educators are signing up in droves to endorse the letter.

So, what should parents want to know when selecting a school?

  1. Is the principal an excellent educational leader?
  2. How well do teachers connect to the community? to each other? to the students?
  3. How happy are other parents with the school?
  4. Is the school a small enough size that people know each other and big enough to allow some diversity?
  5. How welcoming is the school culture?
  6. What additional supports are available to students?
  7. What sort of improvement do students make when they attend the school, i.e. what is the value-added?

School visits will give you that information.So what if you wanted to build a web tool which might work?

Rate My teacher is a website that lets students get at some of these issues, even if it is focused at individual teachers. Perhaps a more useful website would have been one that let parents connect with each other, to share their experience and learn from each other.

Suggestions like this are often met by fear (and anyone who has ever read the anonymous comments left on a newspaper website has some reason for this fear). However a moderated forum or a wiki format would achieve the same school-level accountability and transparency that the Ministry was trying to achieve and have provided more meaningful information for parents looking to learn more about their local schools.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, when Ontarians are polled about the performance of schools in OISE’s biannual survey, the happiest people in the system are usually those closest to the the school system, that is parents. And parents are most likely to be happy about their own school and although they may worried about other schools. A Wiki page for each school would allow parents to build a shared vision of the strength of their local school. A Web 2.0 approach would have been a much better model. We may get there.

April 2, 2009

Urban or Suburban: Physical activities differ by kind, not amount

I have the daily pleasure of walking, to work, to shop, to visit my neighbours. In fact, at least once a week one of my neighbours and I will head out for an evening march, just to avoid too many evenings in front of a screen. I fit the profile of a central urban resident, as released in a Stats Can study looking at the physical activity levels of urban and suburban residents, Life in Metropolitan Areas.

My extended family live in less dense neighbourhoods, further out from the city core, with big lawns, wide streets, and impossibly long walks to a hardware store or a restaurant. The study shows however that their physical activity levels are still likely on par with mine because they do more outdoor yard work (much more!) and they are also more likely to engage in an active leisure activity.

So, the study’s analysis of daily activitity shows, however we do it, urban and suburban dwellers tend to spend about the same amount of time engaged in daily physical activities. (If you’re interested in some of the other demographic characteristics of active people, see a previous Statistics Canada study, Who participates in active leisure?)

There were, however, two exceptions to the comparable physical activity levels amongst urban and suburban residents.

Suburban dwellers who were less physically active were those who:

  • work or go to school more than 9 hours a day, and/or
  • live in the tall residential apartments and condominiums that sprinkle most of Toronto’s suburbs, those that live in the tall towers, far from easy transit or commercial activities. 

While New Urbanism (see also CBC’s video clips on the topic) addresses some of the issues of built form and more compact and walkable communities, targeted intitiatives, such as the Mayor’s Tower Renewal project, are more likely to make a difference to those who are not physically active. Introducing such things as commmunity gardens and mixed commercial activity, the Tower Renewal Project changes the landscape surrounding tall buildings, thereby providing further opportunties for local residents to be physically active, whether through walking to do their errands or yard work.

Today’s Stats Can study simply underscores how landscape offers different opportunities to be physically active.



%d bloggers like this: