Dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America, the Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Understanding Crisis and Resilience in California's Housing Markets

Photo: Stockton, California street in 2008, cc licensed from Inman News service via Flickr

Hugo Lefebvre was a visiting scholar at the Center in 2013 and 2014, supported by the Fulbright and Palladio foundations. A researcher in geography and geopolitics, he is continuing his work at the University of Paris Dauphine’s department of Real Estate and Urban Planning. In this post for the Center, he describes his work exploring the roots of the foreclosure crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

My work at the Bill Lane Center extended and completed my doctoral research on the housing crisis in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. In the decade preceding the Great Recession, this region experienced very fast urban growth, fueled by the out-migration of people from the San Francisco Bay Area. When the crisis started, the San Joaquin Valley was devastated by foreclosures, experiencing one of the highest rates in the nation. This sudden collapse was unforeseen, and it caused major problems for cities that had based their fiscal expectations on continuing urban growth.

In my doctoral research, I had found that urban growth and foreclosures are correlated. This association is in part structural: many people who moved into the valley during this period of fast urban growth were sold subprime loans. Indeed, such mortgages were extremely frequent at the time – especially because lenders and brokers promoted them to home buyers (particularly minorities) even when they could have obtained better loans. I also concluded that the competition between local administrations for potential tax revenues reduced their incentive to manage urban growth in the valley before the crisis. This explained why the valley grew so fast, and also the explosion of foreclosures after the crisis started. 

During my time at the Bill Lane Center, I studied the evolution of the San Francisco Bay Area in order to measure and better understand its resilience after the housing crisis. Several scholars have recently argued that American cities are experiencing a major restructuring. They claim that, after more than 70 years of suburbanization, peripheral areas are not attractive anymore — for demographic, cultural and economic reasons — and that people are moving back to center cities. Of course, gentrification is not a new phenomenon (the term was coined 50 years ago, in 1964), but the decline (or the perception of the decline) of second-ring suburbs and exurbs certainly is. The Northern San Joaquin Valley – ground zero for foreclosures – is a perfect laboratory to test this hypothesis. 

Change in average Bay Area home values from 2003 to 2012. Cooler tones are declines, hotter ones are increases. Map by Hugo Lefebvre; click to enlarge.

I used GIS and statistics software to visualize and measure the evolution of the housing market in the Bay Area. I was able to demonstrate that places located far from the center experienced a steeper decline during the housing crisis, and that they were also slower to recover than the densest areas close to the center. I also showed that (all things being equal) housing prices in places with long commute times declined faster than others. 

On the other hand, places with high density and high rates of multi-family housing experienced an increase in housing prices. The spatial pattern of the recovery is very important for the future of urban policies: for decades, city centers were at the center of the scope, for very good reasons. This evolution of the suburbs means that urban policies need to be adapted to this new reality, and to provide suburban municipalities with more funding and better infrastructure.

After a very productive year at Stanford University, I am now a research associate at the Real Estate and Urban Planning department at Paris-Dauphine University. My work focuses more on France, and includes creating a “dashboard” to analyze tensions in the French real-estate market, based on data of residential migration between 2003 and 2008. I also am working on a comparative analysis of the real estate structure of French and American cities with the sociologist François Cusin, to highlight the diversity of the situations in countries that are often contrasted in relation to local politics and housing policies. 

My year at the Center has been a wonderful experience; being in an interdisciplinary environment helped me learn a great deal. The support of the Center has been amazing, and I would like to thank Bruce Cain for his invitation and his advice, and all the staff and colleagues of the Center. I’d also like to thank the Fulbright commission and the Palladio Foundation for their support of my research.

Looking Back at a Productive 2014

Photograph: Snow in Yosemite Valley, Dec. 13, 2014 (Christopher Michel via Flickr)

Along with the Stanford University campus, The Bill Lane Center for the American West shut down on Friday, December 19 for winter recess until January 5. As we approach the end of 2014, we offer the following reflections from the Center's faculty director, Professor Bruce E. Cain. 

The Bill Lane Center for the American West continues to flourish, thanks to the generosity and wise counsel of its Advisory Council members and friends. Your support enables our many activities on behalf of Stanford’s students and community. Capping a notable year, the Eccles family established a $4 million gift to endow the Center’s directorship. I and my successors will henceforth be known as the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director. Among the many benefits of this gift, the Center will be able to perpetuate and expand the annual Rural West conference and related projects. Launched by the Center’s founding director, David M. Kennedy, the Rural West Initiative promotes education, study and outreach about this often-neglected but critical portion of our region. The Eccles gift will also enable us to deepen our network with other universities in western states.

The Center’s Advisory Council has been strengthened by the addition of two new members: Bob Ducommun and Martha Wyckoff. Bob is a fourth-generation Californian and a 1973 graduate of Stanford (majoring in history). He is a director of Ducommun Incorporated, which is the oldest ongoing business in California. It was started in Los Angeles as a general store and trade station by his great-grandfather in 1849. Bob assures us that he will be in training this winter on the streets of New York for our annual Stanford to the Sea hike. Martha is a Seattle-based community investor who contributes her time, energy and resources to land conservation, the arts, the environment and civic engagement. She served on the national board of the Trust for Public Land from 1996 to 2009, and is currently an emeritus board member. In addition, Martha has embarked on a project to co-author a full life biography of John A. McCone, a notable California industrialist and 20th-century public servant.

Last year at this time, we were preparing an ambitious interdisciplinary course on the American West. The new course, launched in spring quarter, was an instant success, attracting over 100 undergraduates. Taught by five senior professors in such divergent fields as English, art history, history, political science, and civil and environmental engineering, it examined distinctive western themes such as water scarcity and economic boom-and-bust cycles from different disciplinary perspectives. We will be offering this course again in spring 2015. We also designed and launched a new Sophomore College class entitled Energy in the West. During this three-week course, held just before the beginning of fall quarter, students learned about different types of fossil-fuel and green-energy technologies, and how government policies shape their development. After a week of on-campus lectures, the class went to Wyoming, the Energy State, visiting policy makers and energy sites on a 1,500-mile journey over a two-week period. Planning has already begun for a course next year that will focus on energy in the Southwest.

Many of Stanford’s talented undergraduates try to have at least one experience undertaking original research before they graduate. Some are testing out the idea of pursuing a PhD, but most are seeking valuable skills that can be used in the modern workplace. Last year, 22 students worked for the Center as research assistants on the following projects: the history and efficacy of the California Coastal Commission, an analysis of state water plans, digital cartographic accompaniments to an exhibition of Carleton Watkins photographs at the Cantor Arts Center, a Grand Canyon digital humanities project, Native American tribal governance, the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, California conservation history, humans and biodiversity in Stanford’s green spaces, and geo-engineering the American West. This year, several of these projects will continue, plus we have added research assistantships on parole hearings for California's “lifer” inmates and on defining fragmentation in metropolitan communities.

Sophomores Traverse Wyoming in 'Energy in the West' Course

A dragline excavator removes topsoil from an open-pit coal mine in the Powder River Basin, WY. Photograph courtesy of Sally Benson.

What happens when we turn on the light switches in our home? Where does that energy come from, and how does it remain available 24/7? As the second- and 10th-largest energy producer in the United States and in the world, respectively, Wyoming provided a unique backdrop for the Bill Lane Center for the American West's 2014 Sophomore College course.

On a 1,500-mile tour around the state, students observed its large seams of coal (some more than 100 feet thick) and one of the largest gas fields discovered in the United States in the early 1990s, among other energy resources. They also learned how extraction of these natural resources has complex relationships with the state's politics, economics and culture.

Through Stanford's intensive three-week Sophomore College program, the Bill Lane Center takes 12 students into the West each autumn to study a particular topic in depth. This year's journey was led by professors Sally Benson (energy resources engineering), Bruce Cain (political science), and David Freyberg (civil and environmental engineering) with the help of graduate students Grayson Badgley (environmental earth system science) and Sherri Billimoria (earth systems). The students met with operators, regulators, and politicians at both the state and federal levels to understand Wyoming's energy landscape. We are excited to share their stories, photos and final projects with you.

With Visually Striking Series on Ocean Acidification, The Seattle Times Wins Knight-Risser Prize

Photograph: Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times

The reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman of The Seattle Times have been named winners of the 2014 Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism. Their series, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” examines and illuminates ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of global warming.

“Aquifer at Risk,” by Ian James and Jay Calderon of The Desert Sun, was honored by the judges with a Special Citation. Judges commended it as a well-researched and clearly written series that deepened the public's understanding and resulted in local discussion and action.

The Knight-Risser Prize recognizes the best environmental reporting on the North American West — from Canada through the United States to Mexico. Named for James Risser, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and director emeritus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, the prize is co-sponsored by the Knight Fellowships and the Bill Lane Center for the American West, with an endowment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. 

The prize includes a cash award of $5,000, and the winner participates in the annual Knight-Risser Prize Symposium, which brings journalists, researchers, scholars and policy makers together with public audiences to explore new ways to ensure that sophisticated environmental reporting survives in the West. The symposium will be held in early 2015 on a date to be announced soon.

Seeking Research Assistants to Investigate California's Conservation History

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is seeking to hire an undergraduate researcher to join our research team on reconstructing California conservation history. Students will have an opportunity work with former postdoctoral fellow Maria Santos and director Bruce Cain. More details and application information follow below.

This era of change presents an opportunity to assess our legacy on the landscape and understand successes and challenges in the conservation and restoration of natural resources. Such an assessment enables us to move forward and propose strategic conservation plans for the future. To this end, this project aims at reconstructing of the conservation history of California, that is, the evolution of historically restored ecosystems in Open Space-designated areas.

We are looking for a motivated and independent student to answer the question, “Does the time since Open Space designation affect the likelihood of successful restoration?” We will build on previous work conducted during the summer of 2014 and administer questionnaires to Open Space managers to:

  1. Asses the management activities that have occurred within the land they manage
  2. Assess their opinion about the success of restoration
  3. Compare the survey results with changes in land cover over the last 80 years

We are accepting applications until Sunday, January 4, 2015. This job is 10 hours per week at the rate of $16/hour through winter and spring quarters, with the possibility of extension if both the RA and mentor think it would be mutually beneficial.

Read more about the position »

Water, Energy Take Center Stage at State of the West Symposium

Full video of the symposium is available for viewing in the player above and on YouTube.

Water and energy issues were front and center as the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research co-hosted the fourth annual State of the West Symposium on November 13. The symposium focuses on the economic and fiscal health of western North America.

Leading off the day was Narayana Kocherlakota, President of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. Kocherlakota discussed the economic effects of fracking on western North Dakota, in addition to monetary policy (video).

Next came a panel on moving water in the West, featuring Jonathan Foley, the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences; Patricia Mulroy, the former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and former Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes, now a distinguished visiting lecturer at Stanford Law School (video).

A second panel--Lawrence Goulder, the Shuzo Nishihara Professor in Environmental and Resource Economics; Douglas Larson, the executive director of the Western State Energy Board; and Blas Pérez Henríquez, the director of the Center for Environmental Public Policy at UC Berkeley and a visiting scholar at the Bill Lane Center--examined California's greenhouse gas emissions legislation, AB32, and whether it has had regional impact (video).

The event closed with a keynote address by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, who struck a note of regional cooperation on such topics as drought and fire management, and who celebrated the predicted $80 billion to $100 billion impact of the new Tesla electric car plant in his state (video).

Utah's Eccles Family Gives $4 Million to Endow Center's Directorship

David M. Kennedy, left, speaks with Cleone, Hope and Spencer Eccles at the 2012 Conference on the Rural West in Ogden, Utah.

The Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Family – including Stanford University alumnae Hope Eccles, ’83, and Katie Eccles, ’87, JD ’90 – is making a $4 million gift to endow the directorship of Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the American West. The family, which has deep western roots spanning five generations, is making this gift from its charitable foundation, led by Spencer F. Eccles and his children, who include Lisa Eccles and Spencer P. Eccles, in addition to Hope and Katie.

Spencer Fox Eccles is the former chairman of First Security Corporation and chairman emeritus of the Intermountain Region of Wells Fargo Corporation. His late wife, Cleone Peterson Eccles, was a civic leader and philanthropist who served on the University of Utah Board of Trustees and many other community boards. Both are descendants of pioneering Utah families that established many of region’s key business enterprises in industries such as banking and finance, sugar beet refining, lumber, construction, ranching, mining and railroads. Hope Eccles also serves as a member of the Bill Lane Center for the American West’s Advisory Council.

Funds from the gift will help support the Center’s programs, including its study of the rural West, its examination of western water and energy issues, and its development of courses that educate the region’s future leaders.

“We are westerners through and through, with a generations-long love for and commitment to western values and way of life, which makes this gift particularly gratifying,” says Spencer F. Eccles. “Realizing that wide-ranging challenges will continue to face western North America, we are hopeful that this investment in the Bill Lane Center will enhance and enrich its programs, particularly those in undergraduate education. In areas from water, energy and other natural resources to law, governmental policy, commerce and health care, we hope this gift will foster an understanding and appreciation of western history, geography, literature, art, culture and more.”

Seeking Research Assistants to Study Metropolitan Areas

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is seeking to hire two undergraduate researchers to join our research on Measuring and Visualizing Metropolitan Areas. Students will have an opportunity work with visiting student researcher Thomas Favre-Bulle and director Bruce Cain. More details and application information follow below.

Metropolitan areas provide useful models to describe the functional environment in which urban Americans live their everyday life. The Office for Management and Budget’s (OMB) definition of metropolitan areas uses two criteria: a large urban center and a certain proportion of commuters in the population. This project aims at testing the robustness of OMB’s definition, expanding it to other metrics, and validating potential alternatives.

Depending of the composition of the RA team, the project can be divided into two interconnected lines of research. The first is focused on the metrics themselves and their behavior over the space of metropolitan areas in contiguous Unites States, as well as over time. This line is centered on the research question: what are the relevant metrics to understand American metropolitan areas? The second line of research is focused on visualizing and apprehending the distribution of metropolitan areas in space and expanding the Metropolitan Atlas. This line is centered on the question: how to visualize and compare trajectories, and find patterns of comparable metropolitan areas?

We are accepting applications until Monday, November 17th. This job is 10 hours per week at the rate of $16/hour through winter and spring quarters, with the possibility of extension if both the RA and mentor think it would be mutually beneficial.

Read more about the position »

More than Just Research

Image: Taylor Burdge hiking in the Tetons Range.

By Taylor Burdge
B.S. Earth Systems, 2016
Summer Intern at the Henry's Fork Foundation

Read about our summer interns on the Out West student blog. Throughout the summer, the Center's interns and Research Assistants will be sending in virtual postcards, snapshots and reports on their summer work.

In the middle of June, I arrived at the doorstep of the Henry's Fork Foundation's office in Ashton, Idaho, unsure of what this summer would bring. I had a general idea of what I would be doing and a vague understanding of the geographical area. However, I was oblivious to the importance of the Henry's Fork Watershed and the role it plays in Idaho and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This summer furthered my appreciation for the American West, built on my field research experience, and allowed me to observe grassroots conservation efforts at work. However, my summer was more than just research – I lived in Idaho for 10 weeks and gained an appreciation for the friendly people, clean air, and laidback life that Idaho has to offer.

Syndicate content