Visualizing prisons in the United States

We have all read articles about incarceration rates in the U.S. (5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prison population).The ACLU has put together an amazing graphic illustrating the dimension of the problem.

Josh Begley, a graduate student at NYU trying to grapple with this issue captured aerial images for the 4,916 prisons and jails in the U.S. You can view 700 of these images at Prison Map. He also provides a link for those wanting to view his entire database.

One of the 700 images contained in Prison Map

I will close this post by mentioning two recent disturbing articles that highlight two dimensions of the U.S.’s prison dilemma. We are now spending $16 billion annually incarcerating prisoners aged 55+. The privatization of prisons has led to one company offering to purchase public prisons so long as the state guarantees a 90% occupancy rate for 20 years.

As I scanned the hundreds of images of prisons on Begley’s website, all I could think was “there must be a better way”.

 

MOOCs

I have to admit I hadn’t heard this term until I read a NY Times article on the phenomenon. I suppose that massive open online courses (MOOC) are the logical extension of online education. These courses consist of large numbers of participants scattered across the globe connected to one or more instructors engaged in an examination of some topic or field of study. For example, Stanford offered a MOOC on artificial intelligence that drew 160,000 students located in 190 countries. The 23,000 who completed the course received a certificate indicating their grade.

Even though course like this one have been offered without charge (and without credit), the next generation of MOOCs may come with a price tag. Udemy is one such start and is offering a mixture of free and paid courses.

These courses offer participants access to noted professors and immersion in a web of information and discussion with peers sharing an interest in the subject matter being addressed. While the courses may contain the normal trappings of an on-campus course – exams, lecture notes, reading assignments, they tend to morph into something much more free form that is a natural outgrowth of connections that crop up among participants. It is these connections that offer a very different take on higher education.

Are these course a natural reaction to the ever increasing costs of higher education? Will universities find themselves losing their best professors who come to see them as unnecessary middlemen in delivering knowledge to students? What does it mean for the billions of dollars of bricks and mortar facilities on these university campuses? As I accompanied my three children on college tours over the past decade, I couldn’t help noticing how libraries once the central feature of every campus had been relegated to secondary status behind student unions, sports and recreation complexes, and lifestyle dormitories.

To a great extent the very top tier of colleges and universities occupy a gatekeeper status of credentials for entry to becoming a member of the elites whether in business, government or academia. I suspect these institutions will withstand the competition offered by MOOCs, but will second and third tier schools be as fortunate?

Many have expressed concerns about the growing commercialization of higher education even on traditional campuses. Aren’t MOOCs the perfect expression of education in a mature capitalist economy where people vote with their feet (fingers?) and dollars. What bodies of knowledge nurtured assiduously over centuries will fall by the wayside?

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite because I generally believe the digital age has made the world a much better place and offers almost limitless possibilities for even more progress. But as someone who believes deeply in the importance of place, I am concerned about a world in which place becomes increasingly virtual rather than real.

 

Is there a need for “temporary” conservation easements?

Generally speaking residents of cites and urbanized areas applaud the efforts of rural landowners to preserve working farms and an agricultural, open space landscape in the adjoining countryside. Conservation easements carefully targeted can even begin to have some of the same growth management effects that more formal urban growth boundaries do. However, in Colorado, we have an example of two municipalities (Loveland and Johnstown arguing against a proposed conservation easement outside their jurisdiction because the land in question because it might be needed for urban development 15-20 years in the future.

Davis Conservation Project, Larimer County, Colorado

The landowner in question filed a subdivision application for a 46+ acre lot. In order to take advantage of an expedited review process option, he agreed to impose a conservation easement on half of the property thereby assuring it remains in agriculture indefinitely. Both cities point to possible infrastructure projects that might make use of the land and the possibility that a future owner might wish to develop the land for more intensive urban uses that would generate significantly greater tax revenues for the cities.

This somewhat novel dispute raises all sorts of fascinating questions. If the cities see a need for the land, have they considered acquiring it? If they don’t want to purchase it that far in advance of actual development perhaps they could lease development rights in the interim there giving the farmer an additional cash “crop”. [Note: I authored a rather elaborate leasing of development rights proposal for Loudoun County, Virginia, back in the early days of my career. The idea was to manage a more orderly transition of agricultural land on the urban fringe into more dense development.]

If landowners like this one are deprived of the right to use their land for low density rural uses that are admittedly allowed by current zoning but are told their land will eventually be converted to urban uses, what are they to do in the meantime? Does this consign a belt of land around cities and towns to some kind of twilight zone status that makes continued investment in farming activities infeasible?

I am a strong advocate of a more managed approach to how cities grow along their boundaries and to preserving a distinctive boundary between urban and rural areas, but in this case I believe urban interests are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Perhaps this suggests we should create a new category of conservation easements – ones that sunset after 15-30 years. They could be authorized by state law and limited to belts of land around municipalities that go through a comprehensive planning process identifying areas likely to be needed for future urban growth during that 15-30 year period. Funding for the acquisition of such growth management easements could come from the municipalities and non-profits working to preserve farming activities and open space.