Navigator: Lost Landscapes

The Torres family is having a party, and I’m watching it happen. Balloon animals bounce around, a young boy makes a face, and a woman in pink pants and a matching shirt jumps around, delighted by the camera. When someone filmed the Torres’ tables overflowing with half-eaten platters in the 1970s, they didn’t know this footage would be seen by hundreds of San Franciscans in 2019. But here we all were.

For 14 years, the filmmaker and archivist Rick Prelinger has made an annual movie from found and archival 20th century footage like this, as part of his “Lost Landscapes of San Francisco” series. Hosted in recent years by the Long Now Foundation, an organization that supports “long-term thinking,” the screenings are meant to be rowdy affairs, where audience members call out what they recognize when confronted with the landscapes of the past.

For the most vivid sense of a time you didn’t live through, don’t look to narrative films, said Stewart Brand, the co-founder of the Long Now Foundation. “You get most … from impromptu, amateur, family-type stuff; things done for no reason entirely.”

Some of the images inLost Landscapes” were viscerally familiar—the first, a close up of the Golden Gate Bridge, inspired knowing shouts. The waterfront Ferry Building rose unmistakably from the fog. Tommy’s Joynt, a hofbrau that opened in 1947 on the corner of Geary Street, drew whistles. And the audience could spot the “Chop Suey” sign outside Chinatown’s Far East Café from several blocks away. Long-gone landmarks were just as recognizable: the loathed Embarcadero Freeway, which was torn down before I was born; and Sutro Baths, now in ruins, then filled with water.

The movie managed to be nostalgic without slipping too far into revisionist history. Still, an interview pulled from the 1974 film “Redevelopment: A Marxist Analysis” recalled apartment building rents rising to $255 a month—a stat that drew chuckles from today’s audience. Cable cars stuffed with commuters criss-cross the movie version of the city, recalling a time before fares were hiked to $8 and “real San Franciscan” riders hadn’t yet been replaced with tourists.

The most powerful moments were the more intimate scenes: the plop of raindrops in gutter puddles; a man sleeping on a boat in the harbor; women in cardigans walking dogs along the Presidio; the Torres family, celebrating who-knows-what. Disembodied from context, the scenes could have felt disembodied from place, but they didn’t. To me, even as a newcomer to this city—maybe especially as a newcomer—those memories felt as much a part of San Francisco’s identity as the Golden Gate Bridge.

There’s a lot the impromptu can’t reveal, however. On screen, San Francisco’s 1945 VJ-Day celebration is all about soldiers whooping and hollering off the side of streetcars and dipping women down for kisses. The rest of the day would devolve, said Prelinger, into off-screen murders, rapes, and assaults, leaving 11 dead, 1,000 injured, and streetcars upended, according to SFGate. Later on, we meet a wealthy Japanese dentist playing golf with his suited-up friends. He filmed several of his outings, Prelinger said, until he was detained in an internment camp during the war. When he got out, the videos resumed. The middle years are left blank.

But that’s the nature of archives. They’re incomplete, and selective, and subject to the lens of the person recording. They’re also profoundly important—not so we can put the past on a pedestal, but so we can remember it, and build some kind of better future from its remains.

Sarah Holder

What we’re writing:

Mapping the U.S.’s climate-changed fate ¤ Mini-farms are cropping up in German mini-marts. ¤ Stores that are dead or dying in the U.S. are thriving in Tokyo. ¤ London’s tube map is out of control. ¤ Deflating the myth that the sky goes on forever, by taking an early hot air balloon ride. ¤ Queen and Slim tracks real-life black migration patterns and exemplifies black fugitivity. ¤ Twitter debates about vacancy rates obscure the real problem with housing in the Bay Area. ¤ Where are all the women on scooters?

What we’re taking in:

In Toronto’s Quayside Google project’s design, “the factory and the city don’t just mirror each other but become each other.” (Real Life Mag) ¤ I can’t stop thinking about this clock that will tick for 10,000 years! (The Paris Review) ¤ Struggling to hold on to house-show culture in D.C. (Atavist) ¤ Stop buying things, pleads second-hand store expert. (NPR) ¤ Can we blame loneliness for the return of the bathtub? (Curbed) ¤ Brick masonry hive, assembling in Chicago (Block Club Chicago)

View from the ground:

We’re not sure when these photos were taken, but once they get put on Instagram, they’re part of another sort of archive. @thedailymoop looks up at San Francisco’s Transamerica Building. A peek at Montreal’s Pont Jacque Cartier from @vickophoto. dcgrist with an old shot of New York City’s Columbus Circle. And haam51’s slice of One World Trade.

That’s all! If you have any archives you love looking at, listening to, reading, or flipping through from your city, please let me know.

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How Universal Pre-K Drives Up Families’ Infant-Care Costs

Bronx daycare owner Angela Salas suspects it’s no coincidence that ever since New York City’s fre­e preschool program for three-year-olds arrived in her borough, her popular home-based child-care program has struggled.

It’s not for a lack of demand, says Salas: Her family daycare is as sought after as ever, with parents paying up to $385 a week. But with new, free public preschool available for three- and four-year-olds less than two miles away, the kids enrolling in Salas’s home-based program are now almost all very young. This makes for a costly business, as state regulation requires much heavier staffing for babies and toddlers than it does for older children. “I need to keep the three-year-olds in order to survive,” says Salas.

Salas used to hire two women at her daycare; now she needs four to meet licensing requirements. She’s raised tuition by $10 a week. It’s still not enough to make up for the cost of added staffing, she says. But if tuition goes any higher, few neighborhood parents will be able to afford it. “I don’t think I can sustain my business one more year if it continues this way,” says Salas.

All across the country, public preschool programs have been proliferating, to great fanfare. Washington, D.C.’s universal program is applauded for boosting labor-force participation of low-income mothers with young kids. And New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio credits his Pre-K for All program for higher test scores and a smaller ethnic and racial test-score gap among elementary school children who participated in the program.

But a seldom-discussed unintended consequence of these free programs for three- and four-year-olds is the toll they take on the already limited supply of affordable child care for children younger than two, especially babies. It’s a strain that can have far-reaching consequences for families.

The problem is rooted in simple economics. Caring for an infant costs far more than caring for a preschooler—in some places three times as much. But differences in tuition between the two age groups rarely cover the difference. It’s the tuition for the three- and four-year-old preschoolers that make it possible for most child-care programs to look after babies. So when programs lose their preschoolers, they’re losing their “most profitable children, and they potentially have trouble staying viable,” says Jessica Brown, an economist at the University of South Carolina.

Because of their small size, family child-care programs like Salas’s, which are run out of providers’ own homes, are likely the hardest hit of all.

“Because they have so few kids in the first place, family child-care providers have limited ways to recover from that and to keep serving families,” says University of Virginia doctoral student Justin Doromal, whose data regarding the spate of family child care closings in North Carolina recently made the rounds on early-education Twitter.

Doromal and Brown are among a small but growing group of researchers who study what providers like Salas have been living, and are working to quantify just how much of a toll public preschool programs may (or may not) be taking on infant and toddler care. While many of their findings are still emerging, taken collectively, they suggest that the very pre-K programs that are the pride of so many cities and states can squeeze the supply of affordable infant and toddler care, forcing some programs to close and others to raise their prices so high they render them unaffordable.

In Illinois, for example, the advocacy group Illinois Action for Children attributed 16 percent of 610 child-care center closings during a five-year-period to competition with public pre-K. In California, research by the Child Care Resource Center identified the growth of public preschool as a key factor for thousands of shuttered family child-care businesses across the state between 2008 and 2017, adding up to a 30 percent decline in the number of these programs.

And Brown estimates that New York City would have 20 percent more seats in child-care centers for children younger than two were it not for the city’s popular Pre-K for All program. Poor neighborhoods suffered the biggest blow, according to Brown’s analysis.

Perhaps recognizing this issue, in New York City, in what some in the field regard as a grand experiment, family child-care programs will soon be eligible to participate in the city’s 3-K for All program that offers free programs to three-year olds in many of the city’s school districts. Key to preserving child care for babies, home-based 3-K programs will be encouraged to continue enrolling infants and toddlers alongside the three-year-olds receiving free public preschool.

It’s a move considered controversial by some—unlike 3-K for All teachers in schools, family child-care 3-K teachers will not need to have a teaching credential and will continue to make far less money, leaving some concerned that the small, mixed-age 3-K programs will be of lesser quality. But it’s a compromise that could help to expand the city’s 3-K program while also protecting some of the infant and toddler child-care slots that so many working families, and their employers, depend on.

Loss of any form of affordable child care affects many families with young kids, but when a community loses slots for babies, it leaves families with scarce options, nudging some parents out of the workforce, and others towards providers who may cut costs by reducing quality, or caring for more children than is legally permitted, or safe.  

“Pre-K initiatives that lack strong ties to the child-care industry can lead to higher child-care costs, reduced employment, and lower lifetime earnings for parents with young children,” wrote economist Lori Taylor of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in 2014. “Many of the near-term gains to the parents of four-year-olds could be offset by losses to the parents of children three-years-old or younger.”

Brown suspects it’s no accident that her analysis found that daycare centers close to new, public pre-K sites experienced an uptick in public complaints. “Centers closer to these new sites are in stronger competition with them, and they are potentially losing children so they have to adjust on some margin, and are maybe cutting costs,” she says.

Cutting back on quality is a bad idea for kids of all ages, says Brown, but perhaps especially for babies and toddlers, whose brains are developing at a rapid clip. “There’s a lot of research showing that the earlier that you are able to intervene, the larger an impact it has on later life, so your environment at two might even have a larger impact than your environment at four,” she says.  

Sumon Chin, director of Asian child-care resource and referral at the Chinese-American Planning Council, which connects New York City families with child care, has seen immigrant communities struggle after what their research shows as a loss of more than 900 family child-care programs in a recent one-year period. (After accounting for family child-care programs that opened during that time, it adds up to a net loss of more than 130 home-based programs, according to data from the Council.)

Chin says that parents who are new to the country often seek out home-based providers who speak their language and “provide food and a home environment” culturally similar to their own. Many work low-wage jobs at nights and on weekends, and family child care is a lot more flexible than centers in terms of hours and pay, says Chin. “Families have a lot less options now, especially those who have young children under the age of three.”

One thing is certain—no one is suggesting that cities or states roll back their public preschool programs to protect infant and toddler care. On the contrary, the case for high-quality public preschool continues to gather evidence and momentum. Many of the Democratic presidential candidates have embraced universal child-care policy plans that could help accomplish this, so long as compensation for infant care reflects its true cost. Advocates say the goal should be to continue to grow public preschool, but to do it in a way that strengthens all early education settings, for all kids, from birth to their fifth birthdays.

Also, areas that offer public preschool not only in schools, but in a wide range of child-care settings help child-care programs hold onto preschoolers. Several states and cities, including New York City, have taken this route by offering public preschool in child-care centers, but few have meaningfully partnered with family child care: New York’s move to do so may be the bellwether.

For Salas, who has the credentials needed to enlist in 3-K for All, the decision to participate in New York’s program when it opens to family-child care centers like hers in the coming year is a no-brainer. Of course she will, says Salas. The math is simple: “I cannot sustain this business with only babies and twos.”

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CityLab Daily: Building a Bird-Friendly New York

What We’re Following

Wing it: Anyone working in a glass skyscraper will likely recognize that unmistakable thud that comes from birds flying full speed at a window. That’s especially true in New York City, where each year up to 230,000 birds collide with buildings, and many die as a result, according to estimates from New York City Audubon. But this week, the city council passed a bill to update the building code, requiring more bird-friendly design on exteriors below 75 feet.

The problem architects need to solve for is getting birds to see buildings as actual obstacles, since birds have not evolved to gain sufficient depth perception. But adapting buildings is pretty simple: The bill advises architects to place design patterns on windows or netting around buildings. CityLab’s Linda Poon has the story: New York City Will Require Bird-Friendly Glass on Buildings

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

The Missouri city is the first major one in the U.S. to offer no-cost public transportation. Will a boost in subsidized mobility pay off with economic benefits?

Laura Bliss

The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio expands tenant protections, a pair of U.S. senators introduce the Eviction Crisis Act to help renters get legal help.

Kriston Capps

New York Just Set a ‘Dangerous Precedent’ on Algorithms, Experts Warn

NYC’s task force on algorithms was supposed to be a beacon of transparent government. It couldn’t even gain access to basic information.

Kate Kaye

How Friday the 13th Could Actually Be a Lucky Day

Our fears end up translating into safer roads and cheaper flights.

Aria Bendix

What We’re Reading

Why people are freezing in America’s prisons (Vox)

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600 (New York Times)

Seattle joins the rush to slow down traffic on city streets (Wired)

In cities across America, the fight for curb space heats up during the holidays (Wall Street Journal)

The trailer for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights suggests it’s right on time (Slate)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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Why Kansas City’s Free Transit Experiment Matters

Kansas City, Missouri, made national headlines last week when its city council voted to make bus rides free, becoming the first major metropolis in the U.S. to provide no-fare public transit starting next year. The cost to the city will be $9 million, which is roughly what the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority brings in annually from the current $1.50 bus fares and $50 monthly passes.

The hope among lawmakers and transportation officials is that the city will recoup that expense, and more. By increasing mobility overall, KC is looking to boost economic activity. And proponents of the plan say that helping marginalized communities move around more easily will translate into deeper benefits.

“I believe that people have a right to move about this city,” Eric Bunch, a district councilman who co-sponsored the measure along with Mayor Quinton Lucas, told a local radio station last week. “I don’t want to do it for any sort of national recognition; I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

The reaction to the news was a mix of fevered enthusiasm and wonkish reserve. Progressive politicians in Nashville, New York City, Portland, and other U.S. cities hailed the decision as an equity victory—especially in a town where a single street historically served as an impenetrable dividing line between black and white, rich and poor.

Others struck a more skeptical note: A number of news articles pointed out that free fares aren’t a panacea for ailing ridership or service gaps, citing a 2019 report from the think tank TransitCenter that warned as much. “This will reduce barriers to access to people, which is great, but very few routes run frequently,” TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told Streetsblog. “If you reduce barriers to access to a system that doesn’t do a great job connecting people where they need to go, it’s only helping people so much.”

In practice, free transit fares has led to varied outcomes. Several smaller U.S. cities currently offer them, including ski centers such as Vail, Colorado, and university towns such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Typically, they’ve experienced strong ridership growth. The largest U.S. city to have experimented with it was Austin, Texas. But when the Texas capital briefly went fare-free from 1989 to 1990, it saw “dramatic rates of vandalism, graffiti, and rowdiness” and escalating “vehicle maintenance and security costs” due to repairs from passenger abuse, according to a 2002 review of the program.

Most of the world’s fare-free transit systems are in Europe, including a number of towns in Poland and France. The Estonian city of Tallinn is the largest in the world to support such a program. Within nine months of introducing the concept in 2013, the capital city announced that vehicle traffic had fallen 15 percent and the number of transit passengers had grown 14 percent; Estonia recently moved to make transit free nationwide. But researchers found “mixed evidence” as to whether the Tallinn plan has “improved mobility and accessibility of low-income and unemployed residents … [and] no indication that employment opportunities improved as a result of this policy.”

Yet the Kansas City council’s decision was still significant. At a time when public transportation systems face greater competition from ride-hailing services and other tech-enabled tools—and with climate change placing new urgency on shifting travelers out of cars—the City of Fountains has shown an unusual willingness to experiment with new ideas, transit experts say.

Remember Bridj, the startup that thought it could connect riders with on-demand transit service along a flexible route in a 14-seat minibus? Kansas City’s transit authority partnered with that fledgling company in one of the country’s first “microtransit” pilots all the way back in 2016. The idea was to see whether such a tech-enabled service could draw transit riders in a low-density, auto-oriented area. “The way I see Bridj is that it breaks down barriers for people to use public transit,” KCATA CEO Robbie Makinen told CityLab at the time. “There are more options for people to access the whole system. It’s a robust transit system that encapsulates all types of modes.”

It didn’t work: Bridj was a colossal failure. After six months, the vans had provided fewer than 600 rides, hugely short of the 200 daily riders that leaders had hoped for. But microtransit didn’t die (though some transit experts think it should): Dozens of similar pilots have since appeared across the country, from Los Angeles to Columbus to Montgomery County, Maryland. Startups like Via are still trying to crack the code of whether microtransit can viably serve large numbers of riders. These players learned lessons from Kansas City’s willingness to see what happened when it linked up with a tech-forward transportation idea.

“Uber and Lyft’s ability to pull riders off surface rail is not a trend that will go away,” Seleta Reynolds, general manager of the L.A. Department of Transportation, told CityLab in 2017. “We have to continue to test out and try things to transform the way we deliver public transit, in a way that people like better.”

Kansas City’s move to make fares permanently free on its sales-tax-funded streetcar line also reflects that entrepreneurial spirit, said Bob Bennett, the city’s former chief innovation officer. “Over the last four to five years, there’s been a mindset change at the city, and that mindset change is focusing less on what the ridership and operations of transit mean and more on what the impact of that transportation is,” he said.

Take, for example, the KC streetcar. Boosters figure that the 2.2-mile downtown line has brought in more than $2 billion in property value growth since opening in 2015. Ridership has grown steadily—unusual for downtown streetcars, which are often a novelty of sorts. City residents recently voted to double the line in length.

Public transit leaders have to be creative in Missouri, considering what they’re handed as funding: In 2017, the state legislature spent a miserable $.34 per capita on transit, a tiny fraction of neighbors like Illinois ($190.42 per capita) and even Kansas ($3.78 per capita). The environment of extreme austerity worsens a host of entrenched racial gaps, advocates and researchers say.

Then again, if transportation leaders are more concerned with the economic impact of a public transit line than on its actual utility, that could prove to be a problem for riders who rely on the service. As it is, Kansas City’s bus offerings leave a lot to be desired. While the city’s rapid bus transit line and streetcar both run every 10 minutes, the majority of the regular lines arrive every 30 to 60 minutes. In a sprawling, car-oriented metropolis, that means connections can take hours. Free access to a bus that rarely comes isn’t necessarily helpful.

Still, experimenting with new ideas means that the city can learn something about how to do public transit better—and so can other cities. Paris is eyeing the notion of making transit free, and Olympia, Washington, plans to roll out such a scheme early next year. “It’s clearly high time to figure out if reduced fare passes, especially in time of extreme income inequality and stalled wage growth, can make a difference for riders,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institute. Now the world just has to see what happens.

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The Right to Eviction Counsel Is Gaining Momentum

Back in 2017, New York City passed a law to guarantee free legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction. The first of its kind in the nation, the law established a standard for due process for vulnerable families with an aim to level an unfair playing field in housing court.

While landlords in New York appear with counsel in more than 90 percent of eviction proceedings, tenants were represented by attorneys in just 1 percent of cases in 2013. The new law is working: Over the last quarter, more than 32 percent of tenants facing eviction brought lawyers to their hearings, and in 2018, evictions were down by 5 percent from the year before.    

“Housing court was literally like David v. Goliath,” says Steven Banks, commissioner for New York City’s Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services.

The right to counsel in eviction cases is a movement that’s gaining momentum. Today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce that the law is expanding to five new neighborhoods, with full implementation in sight by 2022. Other cities and at least one state are drafting their own right-to-counsel laws. And on Thursday, a bipartisan pair of senators, Colorado Democrat (and 2020 presidential aspirant) Michael Bennet and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, introduced the Eviction Crisis Act, a law that would support legal services nationwide.

“No person should lose their home because they cannot afford a lawyer, and New York City is the first city in the country to make this a reality,” de Blasio tells CityLab. “Over 350,000 New Yorkers have received free legal assistance so far, setting us on the course to be the fairest big city in America.”

The eviction crisis is national in its scope. According to Matthew Desmond, the author of the definitive 2016 book Evicted, more than 2 million eviction filings are issued every year, which exceeds the number of foreclosures at the height of the foreclosure crisis. Evictions are the engine of the cycle of poverty, fueled by a shortage of affordable homes everywhere and the legacy of racial discrimination built into the pattern of our neighborhoods.

Tenants who lack access to legal representation have very little chance of winning a case in housing court, even when the facts are on their side. Tenants frequently face eviction when they’ve paid rent but landlords claim that they haven’t, for example. For low-income families, coming up with proof that passes court muster may be a challenge. And in New York, rent increases that cause a family to face eviction may often be illegal. “On their own, tenants can’t establish that the rent is unlawful, that conditions are violations, or that the rent was actually paid,” Banks says.

New York City’s new law would expand the right to an attorney in eviction cases to Morris Heights in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, East Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan, and Far Rockaway in Queens. Overall, evictions have declined by 30 percent from 2013 to 2018.

The movement has gained traction in San Francisco and Philadelphia, cities that have passed legislation for similar protections. Other cities, including Minneapolis, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C., have established programs to provide legal representation to low-income households. Boston is looking at a bill of its own, but Massachusetts could beat Mayor Marty Walsh to the punch by passing a statewide right to counsel law. Cleveland, Detroit, Seattle, Los Angeles—the idea is catching on.

Arguably, cities can’t afford not to pass right-to-counsel laws. New York’s law, for example, will cost $166 million to fully implement across all five boroughs. But putting families out on the street creates costs that are borne by the entire city. It’s hard to put a cost savings figure on keeping roofs over people’s heads, but evictions touch every corner of a local economy, from social services to productivity to healthcare.  

While major metro areas where the eviction crisis affects the greatest number of renters are taking up the mantle of right-to-counsel laws, there’s still room, and need, for Congress to act. New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Place to Prosper Act would guarantee a right to an attorney in eviction proceedings nationwide, a boon especially to rural residents or renters in conservative states that won’t see new tenant rights any time soon. For housing advocates, that’s the ultimate goal, but AOC’s suite of social justice protections is still a ways off.

The Eviction Crisis Act proposed by Bennet and Portman has bipartisan support, on the other hand. It stops short of a sweeping right to counsel, but would benefit renters everywhere in critical ways. The bill would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on Eviction Research and create a national database to track evictions, which would help local authorities monitor the toll of evictions and tailor better legislation to help prevent them. The Eviction Crisis Act would boost those local efforts by increasing funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a public-private partnership that helps to provide legal aid for low-income Americans. Finally, the bill would set new standards for fairness and transparency with regard to how consumer reporting agencies generate tenant screening reports.

Many renters who face eviction owe less than $600—an insignificant sum considering the enduring havoc the process plays in the lives of those who lose their homes. Guaranteeing tenants a right to counsel will raise the cost of pursuing eviction for landlords: These won’t be open-and-shut cases in which only the property owners have the lawyers.

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New York City Will Require Bird-Friendly Glass on Buildings

A dense city like New York can be a dangerous place for birds: Each year, up to 230,000 birds collide with its buildings, and many die as a result, according to estimates from New York City Audubon. In an effort to avoid many of those deaths, lawmakers just made the city one of the largest in the U.S. to pass bird-friendly legislation.

In a 41-3 vote on Tuesday, the city council passed a bill that will update the building code with design and construction requirements aimed at making buildings safer for migratory birds. It will require exteriors on the lowest 75 feet of new buildings, and on any structure above a green roof, to have avian-friendly materials such as patterned glass that make transparent surfaces more visible to birds flying at full speed. The bill doesn’t include a mandate to retrofit existing buildings, but requires any future renovations to comply with the standards, which are set to take effect in December 2020.

Brooklyn Councilmember Rafael Espinal proposed the legislation with input from NYC Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy, and the city’s chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “This bill strikes a careful balance in requiring bird-friendly glass only at heights where birds are most likely to be flying,” Espinal said during a council committee meeting on Monday.

The legislation is a major step in addressing a critical concern among wildlife activists like Christine Sheppard, who directs the American Bird Conservancy’s glass collisions program. North America has already lost 3 billion birds—or 29 percent of the avian population—since the 1970s due to a slew of threats that include climate change, habitat loss, and loss of insect prey. Window collisions play a role too: Some 600 million birds die each year across the continent after crashing into glass surfaces, according to a recent study by the American Bird Conservancy. Those passing through New York City are likely flying along the migratory pathway known as the Atlantic Flyway.

Sheppard, who advised New York’s lawmakers in writing the bill, and her team will work with the city’s building department over the next year as it develops specific guidelines. Her key concern is helping birds see glass surfaces. “Birds have eyes on the side of their heads, and they see different things with each eye,” she says. “They don’t have a lot of depth perception.” They also haven’t evolved to recognize glass as a barrier—skyscrapers have only cropped up over the last century—which means that when birds see the sky or a tree reflected in glass, they will continue flying towards it.

Sheppard’s organization and others have advised architects to place netting in front of windows or use more subtle techniques like fritting, the application of ceramic lines or dots onto glass—changes that Sheppard says won’t diminish the aesthetics of a building, but will jump out at birds as an obstacle around which they need to fly.

The Javits Center in Manhattan was renovated in 2014 using bird-friendly glass. (Steve Luciano/AP)

She points to Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center as a success story. Its original all-glass facade killed nearly 500 birds between 2005 and 2009, making the building one of the deadliest in the city for the avian population. Then, as part of a five-year, billion-dollar expansion that was completed in 2014, the center was renovated with fritted, translucent glass panels, as well as a 6.75-acre green roof. By 2015, NYC Audubon found, the new design had reduced bird deaths by a whopping 90 percent.

There’s another bonus to some bird-friendly redesigns: “Frit is primarily used to cut down on heat load, so that you spend less money on heating the building,” says Sheppard. New York City passed an aggressive climate bill in May, focused on drastically cutting carbon emissions by improving energy performance of buildings; the city’s bird-friendly and sustainability goals go hand in hand, Sheppard argues.

In 2011, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to adopt standards for bird-safe buildings, though the city only made them voluntary. Since then, a handful of smaller California cities and the state of Minnesota have followed suit and developed similar ordinances. There’s also been more clear evidence of what works in the past decade. “Ten years ago, we didn’t have all the science or the material,” Sheppard says. “But now we know that you can dramatically reduce [bird] collision using a pattern that covers less than 7 percent of the glass surface.”

Architects have become more willing to incorporate bird-friendly elements into their buildings, Sheppard adds. “I do classes for architects and when I walk in, I can tell what these people are thinking: bomb shelters and warehouses with no windows,” she says. “But by the time I’m done [with my lesson], they go, ‘Oh, I can do that.”’

Back in September, the Real Estate Board of New York expressed concerns about the cost and availability of the materials under Espinal’s proposal, as well as the effects the bill could have on storefronts, which also have to comply with a minimum transparency requirement. The board called on lawmakers to conduct a more holistic study of the legislation’s impacts. On the Saturday before the council’s vote, a spokesperson told the Associated Press that lawmakers addressed their concerns in the bill’s revisions. The board commended the council for supporting “a science-based approach to reducing bird deaths,” and said the group intends to monitor the bill’s implementation.

Sheppard foresees more cities adopting bird-friendly standards, and believes there’s an advantage to built-up New York having been among the first to do so. “If New York can do it, it becomes much more difficult for another city to say they can’t do that, or that it’s too hard,” she says with a laugh. “Nothing is going to be as hard as getting this to work in a big, complicated city like New York.”

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