Can Toyota Turn Its Utopian Ideal Into a ‘Real City’?

Just as it is every year, the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show was teeming with prototypes of products once thought to be impossible: flying cars, increasingly sophisticated surveillance tools, even a brand new city of the future. That last idea came from Japan’s largest automaker, Toyota, which recently rebranded itself as a “mobility” company with a focus on developing new technology to change the way people move. The company’s latest plan, announced at CES earlier this month, is to build Woven City—a 175-acre high-tech, sensor-laden metropolis—from the ground up, at the bottom of Mount Fuji in Japan.

The project is expected to break ground in 2021 at the site of a soon-to-be-shuttered car factory, and once completed, Woven City would essentially function as a living laboratory for Toyota’s latest smart technologies. As the company envisions it, buildings, vehicles, and humans will talk to each other through all kinds of sensors, and homes will be equipped with AI assistants that monitor everything from people’s trash to their health. Meanwhile, autonomous vehicles like Toyota’s own E-Palettes—a self-driving shuttle that doubles as a mobile retail store—will move people around as robots underground take care of deliveries. To mitigate the city’s climate impact, buildings will be made of wood, which has a smaller carbon impact than concrete, and the entire ecosystem will be powered through hydrogen fuel.

A lot of these new technologies are already in the works in various Toyota labs across the globe. The idea of Woven City, as Toyota president Akio Toyoda described it during a press conference at CES, is to test all the ideas in one place. It’s not unlike University of Michigan’s mock city, M-City, where the auto industry, including Toyota, has invested millions of dollars for autonomous vehicle research. But the ambition of the newly hyped utopia differs in one key aspect: “We considered creating another testing site for autonomy like M-City,” Toyoda said, “…[but] we thought, why not build a real city and have real people live in it?”

If Toyota’s ambition sounds familiar, it’s because the company is not the first to propose building a “real,” breathing city—from scratch—that will also a showcase some of their technology of the future. Disney had that same idea when it built EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in the ‘60s, and more recently, tech giants Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), Facebook, and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates have proposed or begun building their own high-tech communities. Even rapper-turned-entrepreneur Akon has aspirations to build a smart city backed by blockchain technology in Senegal.

Toyota’s plan suggests the appetite is growing for tech developers to experiment in “petri dish” environments, says John Jung, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, a think tank that focuses on the social and economic development of modern cities. “Toyota and these other companies are looking to take advantage of what technology will be able to do for city building,” Jung says.

The upside is that such environments give innovators a blank slate to fast-track the research and development of big ideas without being stalled by all the regulatory hurdles of an existing city. “It would be a chance to collaborate with other business partners and … scientists and researchers to come work on their own projects [for] however long they please,” Toyoda said.

For its vision, Toyota has enlisted architecture firm Bjarke Ingels to take the lead on developing the masterplan, which aims to let pedestrians, cyclists, and cars coexist with one another. The main element is a grid-like design weaving together three types of streets: one designated for autonomous cars, another for lower-speed little vehicles, and a third—a “linear park,” as the architect Bjarke Ingels described it at the conference—just for pedestrians. The city will also have neighborhoods, parks, and a central plaza that serve as recreational and social gathering spaces for residents. The first 2,000 residents are expected to be employees and their families, visiting scientists, industry partners, retailers, and retired couples.

After that, Toyota is relying on the appeal of a “new way of enjoying life” to get people to move in. “If you build it, they will come,” he said at the press conference, quoting a line from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.”

In the past, though, that’s been an overly optimistic outlook. Take Songdo in South Korea, one of the earliest “smart cities” built from scratch. Conceived in 2001, developers planned the city around a goal of 300,000 residents. But today Songdo is only a third of the way there, at 100,000 people. And despite lofty promises of a “thriving community,” residents told CityLab last year that they found their city to be cold, lonely, and eerily empty.

In Canada, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs continues to face considerable pushback to its proposal for a new experimental neighborhood from Toronto residents worried about transparency and data privacy. Still, Sidewalk Labs has only continued to expand its smart city ambitions in Toronto.

Critics of these projects point out that technology alone does not make a city. If other core elements of urban planning are not integrated into these plans, it’s not surprising that they won’t be positioned for human habitation, says Jung. “If it’s not started from a human-centric perspective, from the bottom up as opposed to from the top down, these aren’t real cities,” says Jung. “They’re not designed to get [people] to know each other.”

What’s more, Jung and other critics point out that projects focused on showcasing new technology in a vacuum often miss the real, more immediate urban challenges that confront the world’s cities, like pollution, social inequality, and housing insecurity. That Toyota plans to populate its city with people who he says are “signing up” to be part of the experiment also means that the company may not face as much resistance on ethical issues like data privacy.

In his book The Smart Enough City, Harvard researcher Ben Green criticized corporate-run smart cities for having a “narrow vision” that technology is the solution to what cities need to fix. “The persistent desire of technologists to build smart cities from scratch is the strongest indicator that technophiles perceive cities as little more than abstract staging grounds for efficient mobility solutions and service delivery,” he told CityLab in an email.

In his book, Green lays out a vision for the “smart enough city” as an alternative to conceptions like Toyota’s of a “smart city.” “History has told us that the world created under the influence of tech goggles is an undesirable one,” Green writes in his book. “We must instead pursue an alternative vision that bears no imprint of tech goggles. Toyota declined to address questions about these concerns.”

Jung thinks there is still some value in these kind of smart metropolis experiments, as existing cities do want to adopt technology like autonomous vehicles—which automakers are heavily invested in. But they risk being irrelevant “when you design for physical things and you forget the human at the center of it.” After all, he adds, “no city is a utopia.”

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The House Flippers of Pittsburgh Try a New Tactic

Every week, Sandra Hazley gets one or two mailers offering to buy her house. Sitting on her back porch, Hazley, 74, pulls out a handful of the laminated cards. They all make the same offer: Investors are angling to snap up a two-bedroom home she owns and rents out on Pittsburgh’s North Side, quickly, with cash, as is.

The cash investors have also found her phone number. “A girl called me on my cell phone,” Hazley recounted. “She kept saying, ‘It could be turned into a really nice house.’ I kept on saying, ‘It’s not for sale.’”

It’s a sign of the times in Pittsburgh, where an influx of tech jobs is helping to push home prices in some neighborhoods to double or triple what they were ten years ago. As the real estate market heats up, wholesalers, house flippers, and other short-term investors are fishing for properties. The Steel City has one of the highest flip rates in the U.S., according to ATTOM Data Solutions. (A “flip” is two sales of a house within a year.)

The assessed value of Hazley’s North Side house has quadrupled since she bought it for $11,000 in 1998, but she isn’t selling. After retiring from a manufacturing firm, she had a stint as a real estate investor—buying, renting, and selling houses. She left that business, but held onto the North Side house, renting it to a couple who live on Social Security Disability Insurance. “They are nice people and they pay their rent,” Hazley said, “and I don’t care as long as I can pay the [property] taxes.”

Last November, Hazley found something else about her rental house in her mailbox—a notice of a building code violation from the city’s Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, ordering her to scrape loose paint from the exterior. Hazley hired contractors to sandblast the paint from the house, but notices from DPLI kept coming, none of which acknowledged the work done on the house. The last set a court date with a district magistrate. It took a series of frustrated phone calls for Hazley to close the case.

Complainants to DPLI are kept anonymous, but Hazley thinks she knows who might have reported her: a cash-for-home investor. “They’ll do anything for an in,” said Hazley. “They’re like predators.”

Sandra Hazley says that house flippers are eager to buy the older home she owns and rents out in Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy Sandra Lee Hazley)

In Pittsburgh, almost all code inspections of residential properties are instigated by a complaint. So when homeowners in prime neighborhoods receive building code citations amid a flood of offers, many suspect that cash buyers—an unlicensed and largely unregulated segment of the real estate ecosystem known for their persistence and knowledge of building codes—are behind it. Community groups are also convinced that the flippers have essentially weaponized tip lines like the city’s 311 nonemergency service, trying to create a hassle that will incentivize homeowners to sell. “This is something I’ve heard of and we have confirmed reports of it,” said Dave Breingan, executive director of Lawrenceville United, a nonprofit community group that advocates for area residents.

Pittsburgh’s most dramatically gentrified neighborhood, Lawrenceville has transformed from a slope of working-class rowhouses to an artists’ haven for cheap rent to a sea of new condos and hip restaurants. The average home price boomed from $71,000 to $219,000 in ten years, according to Zillow. Now century-old houses are being demolished for new builds advertised for as much as $740,000. Longtime homeowners report getting pelted with cash offers.

A “We Buy Houses” sign sits in the window of a renovated house in Lawrenceville. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

Breingan has also noticed an uptick in residents coming to Lawrenceville United holding code violation letters. (The nonprofit provides resources for fixes.) “We know there are predatory cash offers on people’s homes,” he said. “It’s taking advantage of the system.”

Violations from tipsters are baffling and enraging to residents. Hazel Store, for example, received a violation notice last year about chipped paint and a twisted piece of wood in a door frame in the Lawrenceville home she inherited from her mother. Store’s sister, 73 and affected by cataracts and arthritis, lives there. She doesn’t think a neighbor was behind the complaint; several of them collaborated to remove a sloping tree affecting the block last year.

Jim O’Brien replaced his doors and window frames and fixed chipped paint in response to a violation notice for his home, which he purchased in 1976. “It was someone who wanted to do some buying, so they called the city,” O’Brien said.

Kyle Webster, an attorney who works as a general counsel for an affordable housing developer, also does pro bono work for his neighbors in Lawrenceville, helping them deal with renovation issues and navigate home sales. One elderly resident came to him with a code violation notice of small infractions. Webster got enough paperwork to trace it to a developer implementing construction on his block. The developer asked to survey the man’s property for building purposes, made an offer on the home, and then lodged an anonymous complaint through the city’s 311 line, said Webster. The attorney said he found the contractor’s phone number on paperwork relating to the complaint.

“For other ones, I have suspicions,” said Webster. “I get cash offers weekly. It’s part of living in Lawrenceville, and so is bullying through [D]PLI.”

Maura Kennedy, director of the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, said that about 99 percent of residential inspections originate through the 311 line. Inspectors don’t know, in most cases, who originated the call, or why—nor should that matter. “The inspector should not be making a value judgment on the caller,” Kennedy said. “[O]ur situation is balls and strikes. We apply one standard consistently and the code is for everyone.”

A “bandit sign” advertising cash payment for houses sits on a pole on the corner of Yetta Avenue and Rhine Street on the North Side in Pittsburgh. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

For flippers on the prowl for deals, seeking an edge via 311 complaints is just a part of the game. These investors are hunting for homeowners incentivized to sell quickly, and they want to find them before they’ve listed their homes. Public information can provide a bevy of clues. Some flippers scour code violations, liens, divorces, evictions, and foreclosures for properties that seem to be a pain to their owners. Permits for additions and renovations can also be a sign a homeowner is getting ready to sell. The forums on the investor website Bigger Pockets are full of tips for getting this information. Some posters even sell citywide data.

“These can be a good source of locating potentially motivated sellers,” wrote a poster trying to sell a listing of housing code violations in Philadelphia. “Many are also absentee owners, faced with tenants creating issues with their properties.” In another post, a newbie cash investor asks what to do with the list of code violations he wrangled from the city government of Phoenix. “Keep mailing,” recommends one respondent. “It is more important to keep mailing to the same recipient rather than mail to a lot of prospects.”

Once a cash buyer secures a home, they usually fix it up enough to flip it for a profit—though in truly hot neighborhoods they don’t always need to. Jim Roudeski, owner of the frequent mailer sender IBuyPittsburgh, said if he got a bite in a neighborhood like Lawrenceville, a larger investment firm would buy the contract immediately.

Roudeski does most of his own flipping in a low-rent suburb immediately outside city limits. “Everyone has their niche,” he said. He doesn’t use public data from inspections (or any other sources of sad stories), but targets his efforts more geographically.

The image of house-flippers has been sullied, he says, because people only see the offers made for deteriorated old homes and the prices when they go into the market, but none of the costs of repairing them. “Everyone seems to think we’re getting rich off this,” Roudeski said, “but my margins are pretty thin.”

He is skeptical that investors would call DPLI on a prospective lead. “It sounds like neighbors,” he said.  

Neighborhood advocates aren’t so sure: Some think flippers have gone beyond searching for incentives and instigated a few.

Pittsburgh’s North Side has experienced some of the most dramatic gentrification in the last decade. (Michael Swenson/Bloomberg)

Rick Schwartz is executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Development Corporation, which works to improve the two neighborhoods that abut Lawrenceville. Bloomfield and Garfield went through a redevelopment and home price spike similar to Lawrenceville’s. He calls the surge in violation notices an “unanticipated downside” of improved public access to information like building permit applications, code violations, and court proceedings involving housing.

“It invites unscrupulous folks, like home wholesalers, to use the information to apply the screws to unsuspecting property owners,” Schwartz said. “The 311 system, unfortunately, isn’t able to detect when the motivation of the caller isn’t completely above board. Maybe it’s time that DPLI inspectors are told who authored the complaint in the first place.”

Karen Thompson, a retiree, has lived most of her life in a five-bedroom home on a hillside in Garfield. Her parents bought it in 1964. “When my mom passed, I bought [shares of] it from my brothers and sisters,” Thompson said, sitting in one of the typically chic coffee shops that have sprouted in Garfield. “It became where you stayed when you were passing through.”

In 2016, Thompson hired a contractor to install a parking pad and ramp. “I was trying to make my house more senior citizen-ready,” she said, “because I’m getting to be a senior citizen.”

Last April, she received a notice from DPLI about a lack of an occupancy permit for the renovation. She thought the contractor filed the proper paperwork with the city, but he had not.

The inspector said a complainant “went through 311 and that’s how they tracked it,” said Thompson. “It felt suspicious.”

The ramp and pad had sat unnoticed for three years; she’s convinced that her neighbors would not narc on each other over building codes—but if even one would, how would they have known that she lacked a permit? She didn’t even know.

However, a cash investor with sophisticated knowledge of public information, searching for building permits, might notice that a new-looking addition in their target area lacked one.

It’s not a coincidence, she said, that Garfield is in the midst of a mailer onslaught from house flippers: “They’re everywhere,” said Thompson. “That’s when these letters amount to harassment.”

Thompson said she hears frequently about code enforcement activity. “I’m hearing of citations being issued. ‘Your trees are overgrown; your trees are too high.’ Someone is getting to them.”

During an interview in a neighborhood coffee shop, Thompson spread out a file of paperwork from the city on the table: violation notices and follow-ups from the inspector. Punk rock played as 20- and 30-somethings stared into laptops. She reached for a private criminal complaint the inspector had lodged against her, with a court date she avoided, by paying about $700 in fees to the city and lawyer costs.

“A lot of folks want to move into this area because it is a nice place to live,” Thompson said. “To force someone out is, for no better word, mean.”

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The Cities Americans Want to Flee, and Where They Want to Go

According to a growing pile of headlines, hordes of Californians are fed up with their expensive coastal dystopia-state and are fleeing for cheaper, less-flammable places like Idaho, driving up housing costs, ruining the local culture, and spurring a new building boom.

But U.S. Census Bureau data tells a more complex story: Though California outmigration leaped 38 percent in 2018, that was only 1.8 percent of the huge state’s population. The state still ranks in the bottom three for proportional departure rates. And Americans overall are moving at the slowest rate since 1947.

The factors limiting big moves are demographic (more older Americans are aging in place) and, more powerfully, economic (with unemployment low and remote work increasingly common, fewer people are finding jobs good enough to move for). Some worry that our reluctance to pull up stakes is deepening regional economic inequality.

But plenty of stuck Americans do wish they could move. And Apartment List, a rental property search engine, has opened a window into the nation’s mobility dreams, as people browse for new apartments in far-flung cities or neighboring towns. This week, the company released a new analysis of where it sees renters hoping to move, based on their search habits over the second half of 2019. Better (or comparable) jobs and more affordable living seemed to be prime motivators for making a switch.

While there’s no way to determine how many of these searchers actually followed through on the transitions they pursued through the platform, Chris Salviati, Apartment List’s housing economist and the author of the report, says that the site’s long registration process helps weed out those who aren’t as serious about finding a new apartment. Users’ origin city was pulled from their IP addresses; if they searched for properties multiple different areas, Salviati says he used the first place they started searching for. This is the second such report the company has released, and the first that takes two quarters into account—that could cut down on some of the seasonality reflected back in June.

Based on the results, California’s mass exodus appears to be overstated, says Salviati. While about 22 percent of Bay Area renters are peeking at Seattle, Denver, New York, and Austin, mostly, people based in San Francisco want to move somewhere nearby in California, like San Jose or Sacramento, which offer similar employment opportunities and lifestyles. (San Joseans want to move right back to San Francisco, for what it’s worth.)

Other Californians, too, feel Western ties. In Riverside, California, where 50 percent of outbound searches are for places out of the city, 40 percent of them are to nearby Los Angeles. Nearly 20 percent of Angeleno apartment hunters are interested in moving to Phoenix, Arizona; 12 percent are looking at Las Vegas, and another 12 percent are scoping out Riverside. “Phoenix is also a car-centric city, but lacks L.A.’s traffic issues,” the report notes. Nashville, Apartment List’s “most changed” metro of the decade, keeps 71.6 percent of its renters searching within the city, but of the remainder,  Los Angeles tops their wish list.

People in Boston seem to be similarly wedded to the New England area—two-thirds of Boston searches focus on the Boston; most of the remaining third are considering three slightly more affordable cities nearby; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; and Manchester, New Hampshire.

It’s a similar story in Washington, D.C.: Of the 38 percent of users who are interested in moving outside the increasingly unaffordable D.C. metro—where median incomes for families of four are $40,000 less than the salaries the Economic Policy Institute estimates will allow you to live comfortably—about 15 percent are hunting in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, which is in commuter range. Another 15 percent are looking at Philadelphia.

“What you’re seeing is really people who are moving from D.C. to find more affordable housing and probably, in the vast majority of those cases, maintaining their jobs in D.C.,” said Salviati.

There are a few cities that appear to be luring long-distance migrations. Among the top 25 largest cities, Denver, with its snowcapped mountains and tech jobs, tops the list of cities drawing far-flung inquiries: Almost half of the people looking at Denver apartments were from outside the metro area. (Between this report and the last, Denver overtook Tampa as number one.) D.C. people are the most interested in heading to Denver, a phenomenon for which techlash could be blamed, Salviati posited: “Over the past year or two, the tech industry has been subject to a lot more scrutiny generally. It might be the case that early-stage tech companies are trying to get a little bit of a jump on that by being more interested in hiring folks that have policy background.”

Ringing in second for most out-of-metro interest is Baltimore, thanks to its D.C. neighbors; third is San Diego, thanks to Riverside, L.A., and San Francisco.

On the other end of the spectrum stands Detroit: Despite the Motor City comeback hype, the Michigan city ranks dead last for share of people looking to move there from outside the metro, and it has the third-highest share looking to leave. Tourism-heavy Orlando, Florida, ties Riverside for first in renters trying to escape. But they, too, aren’t looking to make major cross-country moves, instead drawn to other economies in the Southeast; meanwhile, they’re still drawing 34 percent of their search traffic from out of the city.

As CityLab’s Laura Bliss noted in her coverage of the previous Apartment List report, this portrait of American wanderlust doesn’t necessarily line up with actual urban growth patterns, and the data reflects only the users of a single apartment-hunting website—a group that’s younger, more affluent, and more female than the overall population. Still, the report seems to confirm one overarching narrative about the state of American mobility: Most of those who yearn to move are not looking to get very far.

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How Stormwater Infrastructure Balances Utility and Placemaking

I see the outcomes of Duke Pond as a representation of the importance of the profession of landscape architecture in today’s world. Once obscured by the glaring light and booming voice long-generated by building architects, landscape architects are steadily emerging as the designers needed to tackle complex 21st century problems. As both leaders and collaborators, their work is addressing the effects of rising sea level on coastal cities, creating multi-modal pedestrian and vehicular transportation systems to reduce carbon emissions, reimagining outdated infrastructure as great urban places, and as with the case of Duke Pond, mitigating the impacts of worsening drought.

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Inside Bloomberg’s $1 Trillion Infrastructure Plan

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul and former New York City mayor who is running for U.S. president, released his campaign plan for infrastructure on Wednesday, which proposes to invest more than a trillion dollars in roads, railways, pipes, and telecommunication lines.

“The plan I’m releasing today will transform the way we build in America, allowing projects to be built faster, and with more accountability for completing them on-time,” he said at a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Wednesday.

He continued: “President Trump has done nothing on infrastructure, except break promises.”

The plan contains echoes of Bloomberg’s 2002 to 2013 tenure as New York City mayor, including an emphasis on data and the value of city leadership. Several marquee elements focus on the meat-and-potatoes of all federal infrastructure promises: roads, highways, and bridges. He proposes fixing 240,000 miles of roads and 16,000 bridges in disrepair by 2025, spending $850 billion over 10 years on capital projects, and setting up a $1 billion annual “pothole” fund for emergency repairs. He also calls for closing gaps in broadband access, deploying electric-vehicle charging infrastructure on highways across the country.

(Disclosure: CityLab was recently acquired by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company’s founder and majority owner.)

But there are also some less-conventional aspects to Bloomberg’s infrastructure agenda. As president, his administration would establish a set of goals for what the nation’s infrastructure ought to achieve, including benchmarks for job creation, social equity, and accessibility. A national map of all transportation routes would highlight missing links in road, rail, transit, air, and freight networks, and data from both public and private sectors would help drive investment decisions and shape policy.

This would be something of a national version of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a 2007 strategic plan that identified challenges and trends related to New York City’s mid-aughts growth and established infrastructure goals accordingly.

According to Janette Sadik-Khan, the Bloomberg campaign’s lead transportation adviser and his former New York City transportation commissioner, this dimension distinguishes Bloomberg’s thinking from other Democratic candidates, some of whom have proposed higher-dollar infrastructure plans. “If money alone could solve our problems, we wouldn’t be in the crisis we’re in,” she said “Setting goals will be a game-changer.”

Earlier this month, Pete Buttigieg released his own $1 trillion infrastructure investment plan; Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar also have proposals in that price ballpark. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have wrapped their respective $16 and $10 trillion climate plans into broad-based infrastructure strategies. All six have endorsed the Green New Deal, though Bloomberg has also said that this congressional package of climate programs “stands no chance” of passing the Republican Senate.

Drawing further on his experience running New York and years of philanthropy and consulting in cities around the world, Bloomberg would vest greater power with local leaders to guide the country’s infrastructure future. The plan would make states distribute 100 percent of federal funding intended for cities directly to cities, for example, rather than withholding or drawing upon those resources for alternative purposes. “I will give mayors and other local leaders the authority and resources to take on the most important projects—and complete them, on-time and on-budget,” Bloomberg said.

And Bloomberg’s plan seeks to replicate aspects of New York City’s transportation networks across the country. It calls to triple federal funding for both public transit, including a $12 billion program to improve service and attract new users, and for “alternative transportation projects,” such as bike lanes. A set of national “complete streets” design principles would seek to reduce traffic fatalities through Vision Zero-inspired ideas. (Among Sadik-Khan’s signature accomplishments under Bloomberg’s city administration was a dramatic expansion of the city’s cycling network; New York is also the only major city to have significantly reduced pedestrian fatalities in recent years.)

Bloomberg also proposes to invest $100 billion over 10 years to repair drinking water systems for 100 cities with the greatest needs—places such as Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, which are dealing with ongoing lead contamination crises. He advocates setting up a $100 billion “Climate Resilience Finance Corporation” to provide loans and grants to states, cities, and the private sector to harden and expand climate-resilient infrastructure. And he calls to expand high-speed rail, with a pledge to build the nation’s first segment by 2025.

Numerous mayors, many of them the recipients of grants and support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, have endorsed Bloomberg as a candidate. “Mike knows what it takes to help cities expand infrastructure,” said Steve Benjamin, the three-term mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, on a Bloomberg campaign press call on Tuesday. “He’s been an ally and an advocate.” And transportation advocates have extolled his infrastructure plan’s focus on public transit.

Bloomberg cracked fourth place in a national poll this week, having already spent $248 million on TV campaign advertising. But his candidacy has drawn critical attention to his past policies as New York mayor, particularly the controversial stop-and-frisk program and his heavily technocratic approach to municipal governance. When it comes to infrastructure, the biggest question about Bloomberg’s approach might be whether translating methods that worked in New York City to communities across the country is as simple as data and dollars. Most places in the U.S. bear little resemblance to high-density New York, and sprawling development patterns have long been a challenge to the viability of car-free transportation. Although the Bloomberg campaign’s housing platform seeks to encourage housing construction around transportation and jobs, his transportation proposals do not address this.

Sadik-Khan said that the Bloomberg White House would be cognizant of such issues. “We are prioritizing transit-oriented land use plans in approving all new transit and rail projects,” she wrote in an email. “[We will] site new federal facilities in metro areas that have transit accessibility.”

Such a cities-first approach stands in marked contrast to the efforts of President Donald Trump, whose administration has consistently sought to direct resources and political power away from urban America. Despite repeated pledges for a $1 trillion infrastructure package on the 2016 campaign trail, President Trump has not signed such legislation during his administration. So far, the White House’s signature accomplishments on infrastructure and transportation include expanding drilling access in public lands, rolling back the fuel standards of the Obama era, overturning environmental review requirements for federal infrastructure projects and building a border wall costing $11 billion so far, or about $20 million per mile. America’s transportation sector contributes about 30 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gases and has made little progress in cutting planet-warming fossil fuel emissions.

As part of their infrastructure and climate plans, many presidential contenders have offered ideas for radically expanding electric vehicle subsidies and charging infrastructure, and some have put forth ideas for reducing the rising tide of traffic fatalities. Bloomberg’s infrastructure proposal comes a few days after his campaign released an exceptionally detailed pitch for decarbonizing the transportation sector specifically, with calls to electrify all new cars by 2035, expand fuel-efficiency standards and electric vehicle subsidies, and build out bus, rail, walking, and biking options.

“We haven’t had a coherent vision for our national transportation goals since we built the interstate highway system,” Sadik-Khan said. “Check, we did that. It’s time for a new plan.”

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Neighborhoods With a History of Redlining Are Hotter on Average

American cities face increasingly unbearable summers—but the heat isn’t distributed equally. Low-income and minority neighborhoods can get significantly warmer than their surrounding areas due to the urban heat island effect. These areas typically lack trees and other cooling infrastructure that provide shade during the day, and stay uncomfortably warm at night as the heat absorbed by impervious surfaces escapes back into the air.

A new study finds that these disparities correlate closely with neighborhoods that were subject to decades of housing discrimination through federal redlining policies that prevented African Americans from buying homes in certain neighborhoods during the New Deal era. In 94 percent of 108 cities that the researchers looked at, they found that historically redlined neighborhoods were nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer on average than non-redlined neighborhoods, though some cities showed starker differences—as much as 12.8 degrees.

“It’s been something that we [researchers] have recognized on a case-by-case level for many years, but we never ask, ‘how did it get to be this way?’” says Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, who led the study. “Our paper is the first to really establish that this is systematically related between cities, and partially explained by the historical policies of redlining.”

The finding adds to the body of research on how redlining has imposed decades of economic and health disparities on black and brown communities—in ways that are now being exacerbated by climate change.

Hoffman and his colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University and Portland State University compared satellite images of neighborhood-level surface temperatures with the digitized color-coded maps of the 1930s. That’s when the federal agency Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, in trying to revive the housing market, graded how risky neighborhoods were for real estate investment. Neighborhoods made up of largely low-income and immigrant or African American residents were deemed “hazardous,” or “definitely declining.” Whiter and wealthier communities were considered “best” or “still desirable.”

A map of redlining in Portland. Neighborhoods made up of largely low-income and immigrant or African American residents were outlined in red deemed “hazardous,” or colored yellow and labeled “definitely declining.” Whiter and wealthier communities were considered “best” or “still desirable,” and colored green and blue, respectively. (Mapping Inequality Project)

The researchers’ analysis shows that the gaps in temperature among neighborhoods were pronounced in southeastern, northeastern, and western cities. The largest disparities were in Portland, Oregon, and Denver, where redlined neighborhoods were roughly 12 degrees hotter than the “best” neighborhoods. Midwestern cities, meanwhile, had the least disparities between neighborhoods on average, which the researchers say is likely due to both the variation in how neighborhoods were ranked across the country and how land was used. Still, the largest metropolitan areas followed the national trend. In Minneapolis, the temperature difference varied, on average, by 11 degrees.

“We don’t claim that [redlining] caused this environmental disparity but they likely codified it, and turned the neighborhood disparities into law,” Hoffman says. Redlining prevented minority families from owning homes, fueling today’s racial wealth gap. They also led to decades of disinvestment in already-struggling neighborhoods, which helped shape the current built environment, exacerbating the disparities of the urban heat island effect.

Historically, wealthier neighborhoods were greener, with more parks and greater tree density to provide relief from the heat. That remains true today. Developers meanwhile, had more incentives to construct buildings and roadways through the lowest-income communities. In the mid-1900s, the federal government subsidized the construction of large building complexes in redlined areas, due in part to the inexpensive land. Those buildings, many of which still stand, were often made with materials that retain heat, like cinderblock and brick.

Then there was the Interstate Highway System, which was widely employed as a revitalization tool for struggling city centers during the 1950s and ‘60s; often, urban highways bisected poor and less-educated neighborhoods that couldn’t fight back against the massive project.

To advocates like Calvin Gladney of Smart Growth America, a nonprofit pushing for equitable and sustainable revitalization of communities, the finding isn’t surprising. But it can be “eye-opening” to local policymakers. “Redlining was banned in the ‘60s, and oftentimes people think there are no current-day ramifications,” he says. “But this study crystallizes that just because you take away a rule doing damage at the time, that damage doesn’t go away.”  

But this isn’t merely a design problem. Curbing the urban heat island effect isn’t just about looking at the data and building more shaded bus shelters or planting more trees in hotter communities—decisions often made separately by various departments. Rather, Gladney is calling for better coordination at the municipality level to understand the bigger picture about what communities of color need and how to include their voices at the table.

Climate change, he says, will only exacerbate those historic disparities unless equity becomes the “default” solution.

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What’s the Future of the ‘Sleep Economy’?

When I first talked to Phil Krim, CEO of the mattress-in-a-box company Casper, he told me that though his start-up was born online, physical retail locations were central to its future. He recalled being caught off guard on Casper’s 2014 opening day, when a woman walked into his original headquarters and asked to try out one of the mattresses they were selling through their website in a bid to disrupt the bedding business. After converting a conference space into a testing bedroom, Krim said people kept coming in to lie down.

In 2015, the testing room turned into a pop-up location in Los Angeles; in 2017, the Bay Area got a “concept” store in San Francisco and in 2018, New York City’s Noho Sleep Shop opened, where prospective customers could find a chamber of napping pods along with sample beds. In August 2018, when Krim and I spoke, the company had expanded to 20 retail stores across North America. And by September 2019, Casper had more than doubled that number, with 60 retail stores and 18 partnerships with traditional retailers like Target and Costco, which sell Casper products in-house.

In its filing to go public, released this month, Casper laid out its aspirations to venture further into brick-and-mortar outlets and open 200 stores across North America. Notably, that plan was first articulated in 2018, when the Wall Street Journal reported that Casper wanted to open those 200 stores in the next three years. In Casper’s 2020 S-1, that goal had changed to “over time.” (Casper didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Casper used the S-1 to proclaim itself the commander of what is estimated to be a $432 billion global Sleep Economy. It laid out grand plans to dominate the nation’s every non-waking moment, along with the processes of falling asleep and returning to consciousness, an arc they project takes up to 11 hours of the average person’s day.

It also revealed that the current business of sleep is not very profitable. Casper reported more than $92 million in net losses in 2018, some of it driven by expensive marketing buys, and the fact that many people buying mattresses also take advantage of Casper’s generous return and refund policy. In the first three months of 2019, Casper lost $67 million. Despite this, and its reputation as an online-first marketplace, Casper has reason to be more optimistic about real-life stores.

“As of September 30, 2019, our existing stores that have been operating for one year or longer are all four-wall profitable,” the S-1 states, excluding a few one-time operating costs. This means that every year-old Casper store has been turning a gross profit, averaging “approximately $1,600 in annual net sales per sellable square foot.” According to CoStar, the average net sales per square foot is around $325; Apple’s is highest, at $5,546 per square foot, and Lululemon, which Krim has named as a comparable brand, does $1,560 per square foot.

Having four-wall profits doesn’t mean retail as a whole is a worthy endeavor. The company’s operating costs amounted to $29.7 million in the first three quarters of 2019, though they’re shrinking overall. Still, says Michael Magnuson, founder of the online mattress-shopping guide, these numbers show investors that Casper doesn’t just lose more money the more it spends. “The net impact of adding each incremental store makes them more profitable, not less profitable, which is obviously pretty important to anybody looking at their business,” he said.

Casper’s relative success here may seem counter-intuitive, as other traditional mattress-market dominators with large footprints in the meatspace appear to be struggling. The industry’s largest retail chain, Mattress Firm, was acquired by Steinhoff International in 2016; it closed 700 stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and lost its CEO in 2019. Big Mattress is nevertheless beating the online upstarts in quarterly sales, according to a Second Measure analysis: “[E]ven with its sales declining, Mattress Firm and its brands brought in six times more than Casper’s website and branded stores did in the first quarter of [2019].”

That advantage may be short-lived, says David Perry, executive editor of Furniture Today. Based on years of industry analysis, he says “the online gains are coming at the expense of bedding specialty stores and furniture stores.” From 2016 to 2018, online bedding sales grew from 12 percent of the market share to 21 percent. That number is predicted to double in the next four to five years, meaning e-commerce sites could eclipse bedding specialty stores as the biggest sellers. Soon, though, those distinctions could matter less. “What’s happening is the world is getting more interconnected,” said Perry. “There’s going to be a merging of the online and the brick-and-mortar worlds”

Casper is hardly the only mattress-in-a-box startup pivoting to stores—Magnuson says that “almost all of the big online brands are at this point leaning into physical distribution.” Competitors like Purple, Sava, Leesa, Nectar, and Tuft & Needle either have their own flagships or partnerships with third-party retailers, or both.

When Tuft & Needle announced it would be expanding into 20 new cities as part of a Crate and Barrel partnership in 2018, it released an almost sheepish press release. “Initially, opening stores felt like a step backwards, we’d fought against the old model for so long,” the statement read. But, the company insisted, “[r]etail stores are both the past and future of the mattress industry.” Now, the company is in 90 Crate and Barrel locations, and a thousand Lowe’s stores. Starting with a temporary pop-up in San Francisco that has since closed, Tuft & Needle also has eight retail stores of its own, in places like Seattle, Dallas, Raleigh, Kansas City, and Beaverton, Oregon, among other sites. A location in Glendale, California opened last Friday, and an Austin location is planned for March.

Stores remain central to selling mattresses because the products beg to be tested, experts say. Even if a customer doesn’t leave with one, they may later order one online once they know how it feels. The opposite is true, too: “Somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of customers still purchase in-store, even if they are going online to find it,” said Brooke Figlo, Tuft & Needle’s head of public relations.

Having a physical location can also build brand credibility. Casper’s storefronts—often adjacent to brands like Peleton and Tesla, Krim told me—double as a marketing strategy, especially for non-Millennials in cities and suburbs outside the company’s usual spheres of influence. For most of last year, markets with a retail store have seen 100 percent faster growth in sales than ones without, Casper’s S-1 revealed. All of Tuft & Needle’s stores are also independently profitable, Figlo says, but she wouldn’t share exact numbers.

Still, there might be a mattress-store saturation point, as Mattress Firm demonstrated with its omnipresent outlets, which numbered 3,300 before its 2018 bankruptcy. (That represented just a fraction of America’s 9,000-strong mattress-selling infrastructure.) Magnuson doesn’t think Casper will be able to scale up to 200 stores as quickly as they once claimed. “Where I think they’ll run into trouble is that once you get closer to 200 stores you’re no longer taking about having one store in L.A. or two in L.A., you’re talking about five or six stores … in that same metro area,” Magnuson said. “Those economics are going to get harder and harder to prove. You’re competing with yourself.”

Dependence on other retailers to sell their mattresses introduces other risks, if Target or Costco go the way of Sears. “We’re definitely rolling out slower and more methodically than [Casper],” says Tuft & Needle’s Figlo.

Another hot brand whose recent IPO revealed a profitability challenge is WeWork. The coworking company’s financial problems are much graver, but stemmed in part from the fact that what they are actually selling—office space—is highly replicable. Vending mattresses is not that different: There are between 100 and 175 online stores that essentially do what Casper does; some newer players, like Amazon and Walmart and the online furniture company Wayfair, provide a much wider set of offerings. But just as WeWork wooed investors with a holistic mentality of enthusiastic productivity, bolstered by office aesthetics, Casper insists that it doesn’t just peddle a slab of memory foam that you replace every few years. It’s selling an intangible promise: that a collection of scents and sounds and glow lights and wearable tracking technologies and specialists (and, of course, a nice bed) can combine to make you more Well.

“I don’t know how well they can dominate the entire world around sleep, but it’s catchy for them—I think it’s a brilliant piece of salesmanship,” said Perry. Where better to sell that world than in a mattress store?

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The 7 Forces of Artificial Intelligence in Cities

AI has enormous potential to improve the lives of billions of people living in cities and facing a multitude of challenges. However, a blind focus on the technological issues is not sufficient. We are already starting to see a moderation of the technocentric view of algorithmic salvation in New York City, which is the first city in the world to appoint a chief algorithm officer.

There are 7 primary forces determining the success of AI, of which technology is just one. Cities must realize that AI is not the quick technological fix that vendors sell. Not everything will be improved by creating more algorithms and technical prowess. We need to develop a more holistic approach to implementing AI in cities in order to harness the immense potential. We need to create a way to consider each of the seven forces when cities plan for the use of AI.

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