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Following a public furor, at the end of last month, the Kenyan government backed off a plan to build a 17-mile, four-lane expressway through the historic Uhuru Park (Freedom Park), one of the few remaining public parks in Nairobi. The construction of the road will proceed but it will circumvent the park. Nonetheless, the road still has opponents, and with good reason.
Announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta in mid-October, the expressway is expected to cost 62 billion Kenyan shillings ($620 million), with the government directly shouldering a quarter of the cost and the rest extracted over 30 years as a toll charge from motorists using the expressway and paid to the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, was originally premised on a neighborhood concept, with approximately 30 percent of the city devoted to open public spaces. Over time, many of these spaces have been lost to urban sprawl while some are threatened by encroachment. Uhuru Park, one of six major remaining open public spaces, has itself lost land to a football stadium, a high-end hotel, and a members-only golf club.
In the 1990s, Wangari Maathai (who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004) famously led Kenyans in successfully blocking government plans to build a 60-story skyscraper in the park. Thanks to her efforts, the park today is still as she described it in her memoir, Unbowed: “A large green swath … Its lawns, paths, boating lake, and stands of trees provide millions of [mostly poor] people in Nairobi with a natural environment for recreation, gatherings, quiet walks, or simply a breath of fresh air.” Thanks to outcry from Nairobians, it has been saved again, but even if the road will no longer traverse the park, it is still controversial.
The government claims the road is necessary to alleviate the city’s horrendous traffic congestion, which is estimated to cost the country’s economy up to $1 billion a year. However, it is unlikely to do so. Building more and wider roads does not necessarily lead to less congestion: While more road space creates more capacity, this does not account for what economists call induced demand—basically, more people will choose to drive, undoing any gains in speed and time.
It is a phenomenon Nairobians are familiar with. For more than a decade, the government has been implementing an ambitious road expansion program, gobbling up many tens of billions of dollars, yet the roads seem to fill almost as fast as the country can build them. In that time, the number of registered vehicles has more than tripled. Despite some improvements in average traffic speeds, the city still has, according to the World Bank, one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times.
As the government builds more roads and as incomes rise, more Nairobians are ditching walking. According to the Project on Integrated Urban Development Master Plan for City of Nairobi, of the nearly 4.8 million trips made each day in Nairobi in 2004, half were on foot. Ten years later, that had fallen to 40 percent, many turning to public transport or motorcycles, whose numbers had exploded. Among the rich few who can afford cars—which includes most of the city’s politicians and decision-makers—walking or biking are almost never considered. According to one study, no trip to work by bicycle was reported by people from households earning more than $480 per month.
It is therefore unsurprising that discouraging car use as a means of eliminating congestion is not really considered. Lip service is paid to ideas like pedestrianization of streets and car-free days, but there is no indication of any actual seriousness in implementing the proposals.
When it comes to mobility, the city has always prioritized the needs of its wealthiest residents above all else. Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile and the classist segregation of public spaces it represents has a long history. Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of Nairobi University point out that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalized transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility.” By 1928, the city had the highest per-capita car ownership in the world.
Little changed after Kenya secured independence in 1963. The new black elite yearned for the trappings enjoyed by the whites they were replacing and among these were cars. Following the colonial lead, they built roads for themselves and thought little of their poor countrymen who were forced by poverty, and as they saw it, backwardness, to walk.
Ever since, roads and cars have become synonymous with modernity and development. Visions of a futuristic Nairobi, like these videos posted on Twitter by the permanent secretary in the State Department for Housing and Urban Development, always seem to picture development as fewer people and more cars and roads.
As more Kenyans have taken to the roads, and clogged them up, the classist entitlement has manifested itself in the phenomenon of “overlapping” pioneered by matatus, the privately owned minibuses that form the backbone of the city’s chaotic public transport system. Overlapping is simply driving on the wrong side of the road, or on pedestrian walkways or through petrol stations to avoid a traffic jam. Senior government officials (and enterprising private citizens) have illegally arrogated themselves police escorts, strobe lights, and sirens to enable them cut through the congested roads. But even without these accoutrements, it is not rare to find the rich denizens with their trademark giant SUVs, simply flashing their hazard lights and taking off on the wrong side, safe in the knowledge that many cops are too scared of to whom they might be connected to stop them.
The apartheid on the roads is also replicated in policy: roads for the rich and not much else for everyone else. The proposed expressway is, by the government’s own admission, a road “for Kenyans who are able to afford it.” This amounts to little more than a public subsidy to allow the rich to escape congestion, rather than a serious attempt to deal with it.
Nairobi needs to get over its infatuation with the car. The way to do it is to focus on the needs of the majority who still walk, bike, or take matatus, and to encourage more to do so. That means, rather than expressways, the city should be building walkways and bike lanes and pedestrianizing the business districts. The city should also be investing in mass transit, not just talking about it. Rather than drive, the default should be to walk or to take mass transit. The good news here is that the vast majority of city residents are already ahead of the curve. It is government that needs to catch up.
However, like all breakups, it will not be painless. It will need a fundamental restructuring of how the city works. Take jobs, for example. “Nairobi is a city built for car owners, who can reach about 90 percent of jobs within an hour,” says a 2017 World Bank study. From central Nairobi, only 20 percent of all jobs are accessible within an hour using the matatu network, and only 5.8 percent within 45 minutes. By comparison, the same study noted, 54 percent of jobs in greater London were accessible from the city center using public mass transit. So planning must take into account the spatial distribution of jobs and match it to where the people are.
Given the vast amounts invested in transport infrastructure and in residential or commercial building stock, some with an expected lifetime of over 100 years, cities can get locked into development paths even when they recognize that change is necessary. It is thus important to realize that decisions on building expressways today have the potential to railroad Nairobi into a path that continues to benefit its wealthiest, at the expense of everyone else, for decades to come.
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What We’re Following
Head-to-head: How much political power does $1.5 million buy in Seattle? Not as much as Amazon might have liked, according to election results from this year’s city council race. That’s how much the tech giant spent in its home city to back seven pro-business candidates through a political action committee.
And according to results over the weekend, just two of those candidates won. Among the most noteworthy losses for Amazon: The victory of Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations.
Sawant called her campaign a “referendum on the Amazon tax,” a reference to a per-employee head tax that would have gone toward funding homelessness initiatives in the city. That tax was successfully killed last year after a $25,000 Amazon campaign.
Now that she’s won, Sawant says passing a new tax on Amazon “and Seattle’s biggest businesses” is among her top agenda items. Read Sarah Holder’s story on what became the most expensive council race in the city’s history: How Seattle’s City Council Race Became the Amazon Election
More on CityLab
What We’re Reading
How California became America’s housing market nightmare (Bloomberg)
A win for the prosecutor reform movement: Former public defender Chesa Boudin wins race for San Francisco DA (The Appeal)
Jeff Bezos asked Michael Bloomberg months ago if he’d consider running for president (Recode)
Copenhagen dispatch: The city that cycles with the young, the old, the busy, and the dead (New York Times)
Activists float “sinking house” along the River Thames (Evening Standard)
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Preparing humanity for a carbon-neutral future is a daunting task. And based on our progress, we’re not doing a great job.
As the effects of climate change become more impossible to ignore, public understanding of the crisis is rising. Across national borders and political ideologies, a growing number of people accept the fundamentals: We need to make radical changes in our daily habits if we are to have a sustainable future—or, to put it frankly, even a survivable one. In Europe, public support has long been secured for the current E.U. commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent of 1990 levels (though there’s also a growing awareness that this will not be sufficient). In the U.S., even as the Trump administration pulls out of the Paris Agreement, the number of people supporting aggressive action to combat climate change has risen to nearly 70 percent.
But there the consensus ends. What, exactly, does a survivable future look and feel like? And why have we so far proved unwilling to adapt our lifestyles and demand the policies that are needed to achieve it?
In part, this represents a failure to communicate. The scientific community may understand the mechanics of greenhouse gases, but for those without backgrounds in climate science, it can be hard to connect a planet-scale atmospheric calamity with the reality of daily life. An ambitious new project in Sweden is nonetheless developing an unexpected tool that could enable the public to grasp the practical steps that would lead to more sustainable societies: storytelling.
Viable Cities is a strategic innovation program now working with nine Swedish cities—including the three largest: Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmo—to help them reach their goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. Such an ambitious target will be hard to meet unless all citizens are actively invested. To make this possible, the program hired writer Per Grankvist to fill the unusually lyrical-sounding role of Chief Storyteller.
Telling tales might seem an odd priority in a fast-transforming climate but, talking to CityLab by telephone, Grankvist insisted that such an approach was vital, for the simple reason that facts alone are not something people engage with. “We need storytellers because generally when scientists come up with conclusions, they are very non-personalized,” he says, “When you take research out into the public and you want people to connect with it, you have to involve an ‘I,’ a ‘we.’ My job is helping people to emotionally connect. When they emotionally connect with an issue, then they engage.”
Grankvist is in a pretty good position to know about this connection. The author of four books (including one translated into English) on civic engagement and technology, he been billed as “a Scandinavian Malcolm Gladwell” and is a fixture across Swedish media. Accessible, narrative-driven engagement, as Grankvist explained in this recent Medium post, is needed if we are to move away from broad-brush portrayals of a carbon-neutral future to something more anchored in ordinary people’s current day-to-day experience. “Stories have the power to engage people in a way scientific facts seldom can,” he writes. “To reach the program’s mission, storytelling is believed a key to get people engaged enough to change their behaviour and norms.”
To Grankvist, that doesn’t mean pushing fanciful renderings of utopian post-carbon cities as a counter to the catastrophism of the prevailing climate narrative: Such futuristic visions aren’t necessarily a helpful way to make people think about what they need to do, right now. “When you look at how the future of cities is often portrayed, you have all these sketches that come from architecture firms: elegant drawings where everyone is slim, and there are lots of cars swimming around,” he says. Instead, he counsels “keeping focus on the human experience of a what a sustainable city will look like.”
When it comes to saying exactly what that is, Viable Cities is still in beta mode, developing individual solutions for each participating Swedish city. The ultimate vehicle for their storytelling plans could be interactive campaigns on social media, outdoor exhibitions, or even through traditional publishing. But they will all be grounded in practical solutions and existing technologies.
“You can use approaches such as [portraying] the story of someone’s day—something pretty normal, like taking your bike to kindergarten, dropping your kids off, and then jumping on an electric bus to work,” he says. “When you look closer, however, there’s a whole bunch of sustainable, climate neutral solutions going on. That tells the inhabitants of Malmo that the future isn’t entirely frightening. We won’t have flying cars. It will be fairly similar, even though we have to make some fundamental changes.”
That needn’t mean giving the impression that business will continue as usual: “We also don’t want to give the impression that things will happen sort of automatically, that people don’t have to change their lives. [But] a few people are already living this kind of [carbon-neutral] life, and it doesn’t look like a horrible one. We should have the same quality of life, although our way of life will be different.”
The key, Grankvist says, is to be aware that while we all have to move forward, personal climate action will mean different things to different people. “You have to connect to what people want, their reasons for getting engaged. Some people passionately want to save the planet. Others are concerned, but still want to continue driving and eating some meat. We need storytelling to address both those groups. If you have a city website simply stating, ‘Everyone should stop driving and eat plants instead of beef’—that isn’t storytelling. That’s advertising, which doesn’t work any longer.”
Such an emphasis on continuity may be reassuring for urban Swedes, but then they generally already live in well-insulated homes, in relatively compact cities that are well connected by public transit; it’s easier to emotionally connect with a future lifestyle whose contours still remain broadly similar. Would the same approach prepare a citizen for the future in places that require more drastic adaptation—say, the sprawling, car-dependent, and thirsty cities of Arizona?
Grankvist believes so: The trick, he says, is to make your climate adaptation storytelling as specific to each setting as it can possibly be.
“All stories have to be locally anchored. You can’t show someone the story of Malmo and expect it to work in Phoenix. It might not even be right for Stockholm. At the same time, there are many people in Phoenix who already drive round in Teslas or electric BMWs, or want to, and who buy organic food and live sustainable lives. It’s about finding those people, and then building a story around that.”
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During the four years he lived at Rome’s Villa Medici as a recipient of the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome, Tony Garnier spent hardly any time on the study of isolated ancient monuments, as was required. Instead, the young architect from Lyon, France, focused his energy from 1899 to 1903 on what would later become his theoretical chef d’oeuvre: a utopian plan for an industrial city.
“If our structure remains simple, without ornament, without molding, bare everywhere, we can then dispose of the decorative arts in all their forms,” he wrote in Une Cité Industrielle (An Industrial City), published as a book in 1917. The book is a detailed collection of avant-garde designs for a socialist city of 35,000 people. This hypothetical city is heavily industrialized and zoned, divided according to four functions: housing, work, leisure, and health. Garnier advocated for the use of concrete in building, as well as the importance of greenery, natural light, and collective social amenities.
An Industrial City was a bridge between the utopian socialism of Charles Fourier and the Garden City idea of Ebenezer Howard, on one side, and Modernist city planning on the other.
In 1919, Garnier received a letter from a young admirer named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who had just encountered An Industrial City. “It is a milestone clearly delimiting a past period and opening up all possible hopes… In ten years, [your book] will be the foundation of all production and be the first rallying sign,” he wrote.
Today, Garnier is not nearly as well known outside of France as Jeanneret (or Le Corbusier). But “one could say that Garnier is to Lyon what Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona,” said Catherine Chambon, director of the Tony Garnier Urban Museum, an open-air museum devoted to the architect in Lyon, France’s second-largest city. There’s not a neighborhood in the city where his presence isn’t felt.
This year and into 2020, the city is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Garnier’s birth. The Tony Garnier Urban Museum has put up an exhibit; the municipal archives has, too, focusing on the fruitful professional relationship between Garnier and former Mayor Edouard Herriot. The city’s Renaud Foundation will display Garnier’s paintings, drawings, plans, and photographs.
Garnier, a son of canuts or workers in the silk industry, was born in the working-class Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon on August 13, 1869. Growing up in modest conditions where people worked and lived in the same space led Garnier to consider the social aspect of housing from an early age.
His youth also coincided with a crisis in the textile industry. Small workshops shuttered to make way for big, mechanized factories. With these economic changes came pulmonary illnesses, to which he lost his mother and two aunts. Sanitation and hygiene came to assume great importance in municipal projects during Garnier’s tenure as city architect.
Schooling was not compulsory at the time, but Garnier’s father insisted on educating him. He revealed himself to be a talented student and made it to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. After spending four years on scholarship in Rome and one year traveling around the Mediterranean, Garnier returned to his home city. The mayor, Victor Augagneur, gave Garnier his first assignment in 1905: the construction of a municipal dairy. Augagneur then warmly recommended Garnier to his successor, Edouard Herriot.
It is impossible to talk about Garnier’s work without mentioning his decades-long collaboration with Herriot. “Here is a visionary architect dedicated to social progress. And here’s a radical socialist mayor, who has great ambitions for his city in terms of health and housing. They didn’t see eye to eye on all subjects, obviously, but their ideas about Lyon’s future converged,” said Chambon.
Garnier completed about 80 projects over his career, most of them in Lyon. Herriot commissioned what are now seen as hallmarks of the city’s architecture: the popular Halle Tony Garnier, which was originally built as a cattle market and slaughterhouse; the Grange Blanche Hospital, now known as the Edouard Herriot Hospital; and a stadium, the Stade de Gerland.
One afternoon in Lyon this past July, Elodie Morel, who works for GrandLyon Habitat, a social-housing management company, pointed me to a five-story building. “Come up,” she said. We visited a sunny two-bedroom apartment with a balcony, overlooking an open space planted with trees. We were at Cité Tony Garnier—a housing estate of 1,500 apartments with 3,000 residents in the Etats-Unis neighborhood.
In the early 20th century, this part of Lyon was neglected, so “the municipality decided to use it for a public housing project for workers in factories nearby,” said Morel. Garnier, an established architect by then, was hired for the job, and finished the estate in 1933. It was a model of social housing with the latest comforts. Every apartment had running water, a gas connection and a toilet, luxuries that were hard to come by in working-class neighborhoods at the time. For the sake of convenience, each building was standardized with only one type of apartment—one, two, three, or four bedrooms—and the buildings were organized in islands served by a network of orthogonal streets and courtyards.
This new district was as close as Garnier came to his ideal city. “However, he could not include all the public amenities he envisaged, such as a swimming pool and a library,” Chambon noted. “The habitation was also more dense [than he initially planned], owing to economic constraints between the two wars.”
Toward the end of the 20th century, Garnier’s legacy was forgotten even in the housing complex that bears his name. The specter of demolition also loomed, because the buildings were run-down. Long-time residents got together and decided to try to save the estate.
Elsewhere in Lyon, a group of young artists and architects had just established CitéCréation, an initiative to create large-scale urban murals, inspired by Diego Rivera’s work in Mexico. Together, the residents of Cité Tony Garnier, the muralists, and OPAC du Grand Lyon, a social housing company, launched a major rehabilitation project in 1985. Today, there are 25 murals on building walls in the area, drawing thousands of tourists a year. Some of those murals showcase Garnier’s visionary designs.
During a recent walking tour in the neighborhood organized by CitéCréation, a group stood in front of a huge mural. A car slowed down and a man told them: “I live here. I know about these murals.” Other local residents share his pride in this chronicle of their history and homage to Garnier, who once wrote: “There is enough ideal in the worship of beauty and benevolence to render life splendid.”
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Last year in Washington, D.C., a pair of city council members grilled the head of the city’s department of transportation on the status of bike and pedestrian projects in the District. It had been three years since the city had committed to following the traffic-calming principles outlined in Vision Zero, the international movement to reduce the injury toll associated with cars and trucks in cities. But the results, so far, had been disappointing: By that point in the year, 34 people overall had died on the city’s roads—D.C.’s worst year for traffic deaths in a decade.
The council members, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen, wanted an update from Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, on what the city had been doing in its efforts to make the streets safer. But as the hearing wore on, his answers started to sound like a refrain: Almost every new bike- or pedestrian-infrastructure project, from a road diet on Maryland Avenue to an Eastern Downtown protected bike lane, seemed to be about six to nine months away. In fact, the city task force that was supposed to coordinate Vision Zero policy across city agencies had only just met for the first time the month before.
“Do you get why that’s frustrating to hear?”Allen said to Marootian. “I think we can do more, and I want to impress on you that I think we need to treat this with a higher level of urgency. Why aren’t we experimenting with all kinds of different ways to pilot different ideas? If we mess it up, it’s a can of paint.”
Last month, the city council reconvened with Marootian for a seven-hour redux of that hearing, and there were signs that this advice had been heeded. In 2019, DDOT established a Vision Zero Office, fast-tracked quick-build safety projects like adding plastic pylons at crosswalks to slow drivers turns, and piloted some new ideas, such as dedicated bus lanes or painted curb extensions, that could be executed with little more than a can of paint. So far, 21 people have died from road crashes this year in the District, putting the city on track for the lowest number of traffic fatalities since the city committed to Vision Zero in 2015.
It’s a modest sign of progress, to be sure, especially considering the campaign’s ambitious benchmark. But it’s progress all the same.
When D.C. joined 13 other U.S. cities in making the Vision Zero commitment, its goal—eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024—seemed ambitious but also somehow achievable. Transformative safety improvements and a new era of technocratic, data-driven mobility were said to be a few short years away; self-driving vehicle technology appeared to be poised to eliminate the error-prone humans who were racking up 40,000 fatalities a year in the United States. Instead, technology has arguably made drivers worse, by dazzling them with digital distractions that have made cars even more lethal to other road users. While driving deaths have declined, this year United States is having its deadliest year for pedestrians and cyclists since 1990.
What’s more, Vision Zero has run up against decades of institutional inertia. Departments of transportation have long focused on optimizing urban streets grids for automobiles; retooling these bodies to focus more attention on walkers and bike riders has proved daunting. D.C.’s bumpy Vision Zero journey offers an instructive illustration of how difficult this process can be. In the case of this city, it took something else—a tragic pair of fatalities and a fired-up advocacy community—to speed up the District’s push for safer streets.
That process is ongoing. At the October hearing, the room learned that a 15-year-old girl had been killed earlier that day on East Capitol Street. Minutes after learning that news, three younger residents spoke to the council about the importance of Vision Zero in the clearest way possibly. “There are too many cars,” Siddharth Kravitz, 9, told the council. “It’s hard to cross the street. Every day someone driving a car comes close to killing us. It makes me scared. They go way too fast.”
Two victims, and a powerful pushback
Rachel Maisler did not want the summer of 2019 to be like the one before it. In 2018, Maisler, a health and aging policy consultant who now chairs the D.C.’s Bicycle Advisory Council, spent a lot of time organizing rides for the dedication of ghost bikes for three cyclists killed in the District that year. She also organized the dedication of a ghost scooter in Dupont Circle.
There’s a lot of organizational labor behind these memorials: You need to find a bike to paint white, write to elected officials, contact the slain cyclist’s family, pick a route, and invite DDOT and the press to attend. For Maisler and her fellow riders, it had become all too routine.
At each memorial ride, Maisler called for the city council to hold a public hearing on D.C.’s lack of progress on its Vision Zero commitments. “It felt like we were getting to the tipping point, where the city would have to act,” Maisler says. “We did this on our own time, because we thought more needed to be done in response to these fatalities.”
The new year began with some positive signs. In January 2019, DDOT installed yellow pylons and white flexposts to slow down sharp turns from drivers and installed signs to ban right-turns-on-red at 100 intersections around the city. Mayor Muriel Bowser named Linda Bailey, previously the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, to head the city’s new Vision Zero Office. In March, the mayor signaled a sort of reset on the policy, as city officials participated in a Vision Zero Summit sponsored by the Washington Area Bicycling Association in March.
But on Friday, April 19, a driver in a stolen van struck and killed Dave Salovesh while he was waiting at a red light on Florida Avenue. (The van’s 25-year-old driver later pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 8½ years in prison.) Salovesh, 54, was an active member of the bike advocacy community in D.C.; he routinely tweeted about riding in the city and advocated for a less incremental approach to making safe streets.
“He was a good rabble rouser, and I considered him a friend,” says Charles Allen. Salovesh was one of Allen’s constituents in Ward 6. “Dave believed strongly in accountability in government. He could call me out for something I’d done that he disagreed with, then go right back to talking about baseball, or our kids.”
After his death, the fight for safe streets became much more personal, for bike advocates, for elected officials, and for DDOT.
“We were all dealing with this profound grief,” Maisler says. “I was in a complete daze that Saturday.” After a coordination call with fellow safe streets advocates, they made a plan to write to elected officials and hold a rally at the steps of the Wilson Building, the District’s city hall, that next Friday.
But the next day—Easter Sunday—a 31-year-old man named Abdul Seck who was visiting friends in Southeast D.C. from the Bronx was hit by a car while walking at 16th and V when a driver failed to stop at the intersection and collided with another vehicle. Pinned under the vehicle, he died of a cardiac arrest that Monday. The car’s 21-year-old driver was charged with second-degree murder.
Community advocate Ron Thompson Jr. organized a vigil on Wednesday, where Maisler met him and asked him to speak at the rally. “The unfortunate proximity of two tragedies at two very different places with two very different people brought me and folks of my community—in Ward 8, Southeast, predominantly black, very low-income—together with folks who are predominantly white, with college degrees, and affluent or more wealthy than us, around this common issue,” Thompson says.
The two victims shared something else: Better road design could have helped prevent their deaths. By the end of the summer, both crash sites saw fixes implemented by DDOT. On Florida Avenue, where Salovesh was killed, emergency legislation finally expedited a protected bike lane that had been planned for years on a road long known as dangerous.
Thompson also knew the intersection where Seck died: His mother had been in a minor car crash there just months before. The pattern of reactive problem-solving fit what Thompson, now working as an equity organizer with the urbanist nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, had seen advocating for basic fixes in his neighborhood.
“The best way to get DDOT to do things was to tweet it out to them and shame them into what they should already do,” Thompson says. “There’s deep inequity there, when you have to do this performative petition in order to get basic infrastructure in your neighborhood so that a child can walk to school safely.”
At the Rally for Streets that Don’t Kill People that Friday, a crowd of several hundred community members showed up before an installation of ghost bikes at the doorstep of the Wilson Building. They held a mass “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue and shared anguished stories about friends and family members they’d lost to traffic violence. “It was all these different pieces of the advocacy community coming together,” Maisler says. “Everyone has a different point of view, but every single voice melded together to elevate the message and drive it home that safe streets matter for every one in the city.”
Visible signs of progress
D.C.’s bike advocates have never been shy about telling DDOT what it could or should be doing to make the city’s streets safer—and showing it how to do it. Salovesh was known to place red Solo cups on painted bike lanes to show the dangers to cyclists, or deploy pool noodles on a bike lane that had become a favorite U-turn spot for drivers. (The latter led DDOT to add wheel-stop barriers to the lane.)
Many activists have continued in that vein—from the “DC Department of Transformation” that creates pop-up infrastructure, to the How’s My Driving App, which reports errant drivers to 311 and digs up their outstanding driving tickets. An activist painted the crosswalk where Abdul Seck had been struck before DDOT came to do it themselves.
Salovesh’s friend Rudi Riet, a local mobility advocate in D.C., calls these interventions “pushing the city beyond the hypotheticals.” They’re also about making the streets more playful as well as safer. “People will gravitate toward things that are fun, that are enjoyable, that make you smile, that lower your blood pressure,” Riet says. “We equate sweetness with pleasure. Dave wanted to equate riding a bike and walking with pleasure and make it a game.”
Over the summer, DDOT seemed to embrace that that experimental approach. The agency repurposed timber for bike lane barriers, and placed speed stars to calm alley traffic near a local school. They piloted rush-hour bus-only lanes downtown and then made it permanent. “Our real effort this year has been to shape the way that we’re delivering projects,” Marootian says. “The mayor challenged us with identifying our highest impact projects and accelerating the delivery of them in every way that we possibly can.”
For example: On a Saturday in early October, the city closed three miles of one of the city’s busiest and most dangerous roads, Georgia Avenue, for an Open Streets event, turning the four-lane thoroughfare into a space for steel drum bands, skateboard ramps, yoga classes, and a bouncy house.
“Georgia Avenue is a vibrant corridor with lots of businesses and residents,” Marootian said. “It really has a dynamic energy that we thought could be harnessed for an Open Streets event. One of our goals is really to capture people’s imagination about what our streets could look like in the future.”
Marootian also says that the city’s coming Vision Zero progress will also focus on equity issues, pointing to the horizon of capital projects over the next four years that will direct more resources on the city’s lower-income neighborhoods.
There are a slew of new bills designed to bolster street safety under consideration. Among them is a mandate to finish installing the network of protected bike lanes envisioned in a 2005 Bicycle Master Plan. Other bills would require all-way stops and sidewalks on both sides of the street as a default on residential roads, a citywide ban on right-on-red, dedicated bus lanes for each the city’s eight wards, and dropping speed limits to 20 mph on most city streets. “We’re taking the kitchen sink approach,” Allen says. “The time for nibbling at the edge and half measures is over. We need to have the political guts to make decisions that prioritize someone’s life. If you’re going to say Vision Zero, you’ve got to mean it.”
For traffic safety advocates in the District, the progress is welcomed, but it’s still not enough. “I like seeing the action from DDOT, and I commend them,” Riet says. “I just wish that it wasn’t reactionary.” He’s worried that the latest traffic safety bills will get watered down. But mostly, he wants the city to remember the human costs of inaction.
That’s where the death of Dave Salovesh comes into the picture. Reducing him to a symbol, in a way, is a shame; his friend was a lot more than just a bike advocate. “Dave was a father. He was a PTA guy. He was a coach,” Riet says. The same goes for all the other lives lost on D.C.’s streets. “It didn’t matter whether they were on bicycles, on foot, or even if they were in a car. These tragedies could have been prevented.”
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I am the target audience for Denver’s marketers. I ski. I hike. I like beer. Maybe I’ve tried weed. And when a good job opened for my partner Elisa, I happily moved to the Colorado capital in 2015. We picked a new building behind Union Station, the fast-redeveloping transit hub of downtown. I arrived jobless, clueless, and exhilarated to finally be out West.
We were among the
But those tourism ads don’t tell you what happens later, when you get tired of the skiing and hiking and complicated beer. There is no television commercial about the loneliness of the endless newly built apartment buildings, or the uncanny recognition of being surrounded by your lifestyle doppelgängers. Within months I felt stuck in a surface layer of the city, and it made me feel shallow too.
There is no newcomers’ guide for urbanist ennui.
Which is where we get to the map that grounded me in history and connected me to people all around Denver. Let me tell you how it happened.
Lacking a job or much direction—I had quit a newspaper reporting gig in Raleigh—I went that first summer to a park near our apartment. In the park I found a hill, and on Google Maps I found a label: “Stoner Hill.” There, I found the stoners. They were mostly teenagers, many lost, often homeless. I spent days with them, eventually reporting a story for the city’s weekly newspaper, Westword, about the ongoing struggle between the kids and the condo-owning adults nearby who wanted to shut them out.
On a deeper level, my first piece of Denver journalism was about who owned the public spaces of my new city. And it made me wonder: What was here before?
The broad-stroke history was easy to find. There were Phil Goodstein’s tomes of Denver history. There were planning case studies about the transformation of a polluted railyard into this riverfront redevelopment zone. There were even plaques around the neighborhood. But nothing could tell me what exactly preceded Stoner Hill, or my own apartment, or any of my other new landmarks.
Deep in my Google searches, I found a skeleton key: “Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889,” hosted by the Library of Congress. It was a sprawling illustrated map in the pictorial format that had grown popular in the 19th century as a marketing tool for boomtowns like Denver.
The map captured a sweeping bird’s eye view of the early city. It was distorted and perhaps embellished to impress unsuspecting would-be transplants, not unlike the modern city. But as I pored over its rendition of the South Platte River, I realized I could sync its details to real life, block by block.
On the exact spot of Stoner Hill, delightfully, was a castle. Further research showed it was the “Castle of Culture & Commerce.” (I guess Denver’s priorities haven’t changed much.)
With map in hand, I raced through the history of each building and block around me, cross-referencing the inky details with the Denver Public Library’s digital archives. The pictorial captured details and personality that a traditional map would miss, with context that would fall outside the frame of a photograph.
This mild new obsession would be foundational to the next leg of my career. I soon joined the founding staff of Denverite, one of a crop of hopeful “hyperlocal” online publications that launched in the mid-2010s. We believed that readers wanted to know more about the city’s politics, history, and culture, and we wanted to channel our own interests.
Many of our first stories focused on the city’s most important questions, especially gentrification and displacement. But we found room for whimsy, too, and the old map was an early success. I published a series of map-crops and observations under a curiosity-baiting headline: “Find your neighborhood on the Google Maps of 1889.”
The post passed from Facebook groups to neighborhood organizations. Some people found their houses on the map. Others saw the trolley lines, the old city hall, the iron bridges that still cross Cherry Creek, the warehouses that became brewpubs like John Hickenlooper’s.
People spotted little oddities, too: The state capitol was drawn the wrong way, perhaps because it wasn’t finished at the time, or maybe just for aesthetics.
Part of the appeal was Denver nostalgia. In a city that keeps erasing itself, even the recent past is glorified. People here plaster their cars with “NATIVE” bumper stickers and pass around photos of ‘70s-era fast food joints on social media. History becomes the pastime of any neighborhood with a hint of new development. For old-timers and newcomers, this grand illustration was grounding and maybe even exciting. It was easy to get lost in the details, the thrill of seeing what survived and what didn’t.
But the more readers latched onto the map, and the more time I spent in the real-life city, the more I wondered about what maps like this miss. For all their personality, they aren’t about people.
The beautiful 1908 pictorial map offers no hint, for example, of the black renaissance soon to begin in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood. An 1874 pictorial doesn’t show that the intersection of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek was the domain of Cheyenne and Arapaho people when white settlers arrived several years earlier. The maps show factories and their wispy plumes, but not the immigrants who worked there or the pollution that still fouls the ground.
In a way, my relationship with these maps followed the same path as my relationship with Denver itself. For months, I was mesmerized by the scale, the detail, the mechanics of the place. But that wasn’t enough. While my colleagues at Denverite delved into each neighborhood to find the human stories that are invisible from 10,000 feet up, I started to feel embarrassed about this mappy niche I’d carved out. It was too easy.
Eventually, I saw my maps for what they were: a reference. You can only squeeze so much meaning from quaint illustrations. Their real power came when I showed them to people, and a certain group in particular.
I found the 1889 map’s highest and best use back on Stoner Hill, where I’d been documenting the clash of homeless kids and condo owners. I climbed up one afternoon and told the kids that the place used to be a damn castle, as I’d learned from the pictorial. They were delighted. Actually, they had invented all their own legends about it: It was a burial mound, or maybe a landfill, they said. This little snapshot of the 19th century imbued their spot with more history, I think, and reinforced their understanding that their city was a changing place, a story that they were part of.
That’s the marvelous thing about these old maps to me: Even with their many limits and omissions, they can help us find our place, and they invite others to do so, too. And here I am, sharing them again.
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What We’re Following
Hold the door: Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, might just yet enter the 2020 presidential campaign. The New York Times reports that Bloomberg has dispatched staffers to gather signatures in Alabama for Friday’s early candidate filing deadline for its primary, signaling that the billionaire businessman could jump into the race.
If you want a clue on what Bloomberg might be thinking, Face the Nation’s Margaret Brennan asked Bloomberg at CityLab DC just last week whether he had completely closed the door on a presidential run after declaring he would not run last March. “I didn’t say that. It’s just X number of months later and nothing’s changed,” Bloomberg said.
He then elaborated on his dissatisfaction with the existing pool of Democratic candidates: “I have my reservations about the people running and the way they’re campaigning and the promises they’re making that they can’t fulfill and their unwillingness to really admit what is possible and what isn’t,” Bloomberg said. “This is not the way to run a railroad. This country is in real trouble. We need somebody to pull people together.” Brennan replied, “I’m hearing a maybe.”
You can watch their full conversation here.
CityLab context: Why Mayors Are Running
More on CityLab
What We’re Reading
Senator Blumenthal calls for Uber and Lyft to share driver data and implement fingerprinting (Washington Post)
Housing discrimination is on the rise, report says (Curbed)
The promise of Mr. Trash Wheel (New Yorker)
Congress is looking into why opportunity zones keep benefiting the wealthy and connected (ProPublica)
The end of the country road (JSTOR Daily)
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The edge of Oslo’s Ekeberg Hill gives quiet, unobstructed views of the Nordic city’s islands and bustling port. At the Sjursøya container terminal, cranes swing around, stacking multicolor containers in neat rows and columns. On the other side of the port, ferries load and unload passengers. A massive cruise ship idles while its inhabitants wander around the city.
The Port of Oslo receives between 50 and 70 calls a week and 12,500 containers a month, and the ships and shore equipment help produce 55,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions a year. That last figure is what Oslo is trying to change. By 2030, the port aims to make an 85 percent reduction in its emissions of carbon dioxide, sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter, with the goal of becoming the world’s first zero-emissions port.
“It’s very ambitious, but at the same time it’s what is necessary if we are going to reach the Paris Agreement,” says Heidi Neilson, head of environment for the Port of Oslo. The port’s 17-point climate action plan includes refitting ferry boats, implementing a low-carbon contracting process, and installing shore power, which would allow boats to cut their engines and plug into the grid when docked.
The effort is part of the city’s mandate to cut overall emissions by 95 percent by 2030—a decree that spares no person nor industry. The city’s climate budget and strategy is an all-hands atonement for the oil industry that made Norway into a very rich country.
“To reach the targets, all sectors have to reduce their emissions. Hence, the port and the maritime industry in Oslo must decarbonize at the same speed as the other sectors (i.e. energy supply, heating, construction, waste and combustion, road traffic),” writes Oslo Climate Agency Director Heidi Sørensen in an email to CityLab.
In August, the port signed a contract with Norwegian NGO the Bellona Foundation to move full speed ahead on cutting emissions—whether its users like it or not.
Freight’s big decarbonization challenge
According to the UN’s International Maritime Organization, between 80 and 90 percent of the world’s trade by volume is transported by sea on high-sulphur fuel oil—the dirtiest fuel there is. That’s about 94,000 vessels carrying 10 billion tons of crude, chemicals, corn, and cargo, to the tune of $4 trillion a year and nearly 4 percent of global GHG emissions.
In Oslo, container ships aren’t the only problem. Ferries running to Denmark and Germany are responsible for nearly 40 percent of port emissions, while local ferries account for 12 percent, and onshore handling and transport equipment accounts for 14 percent. To address local ferry emissions, the port awarded a contract to Norled, which is currently tasked with electrifying three of 10 existing passenger ships. When all three of these heavily used ferries are outfitted with batteries, Norled estimates the transit authority’s port emissions will decline by 70 percent. Norled delivered the first electric refit in September—a job that took 150 workers a combined total of 25,000 hours. MS Kongen now has the equivalent of 20 Tesla batteries on board.
Progress is slower when it comes to bigger ships. Cruise and cargo ships still can’t cross an ocean on battery power alone because of the cumbersome size and weight of the required batteries. Hydrogen is gaining traction as an environmentally friendly option compatible with long-haul shipping. The fuel emits water and can be produced with renewable electricity. Unfortunately, it’s also prohibitively expensive at this early stage in its maritime-sector development.
“Hydrogen is, I think, the only energy carrier that is completely CO2 free and able to power ships on longer sailings. If you need to get the ship to sail from Rotterdam to New York, you cannot do it with batteries. You can only do it with hydrogen,” says Alex Ruijs, a senior consultant with Royal HaskoningDHV who works on electrical power and energy in the maritime and aviation sectors. However, he adds, the fuel is still 10 to 15 years away from being commercially competitive. Technologies to reliably produce other synthetic fuels are also not yet economically viable.
The Bellona Foundation’s maritime senior advisor Christina Ianssen says shore power is a key element to maritime decarbonization that can be implemented right now. It would enable refitted ships to keep their lights, cooling systems, and other systems and equipment on by plugging in to the hydroelectric grid rather than running the engine. It would also power equipment like cranes, which normally run on diesel. “Even though [shore power] doesn’t solve all our problems, it helps push for a shift that is technically feasible today,” says Ianssen.
As with hydrogen, shore-power compatibility hasn’t reached the critical mass required to become economically attractive. So, getting shipowners on board may take both the carrot and the stick: Lower port fees and electricity costs to reward compliant ships, and revise contracting processes to command terminal builders and shipping companies to obey low-emission rules. “It sort of forces the shipowners to start investing in technologies they haven’t thought about before,” says Ianssen.
The green port movement gains steam
A handful of other ports around the world—in, for instance, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Auckland, the Spanish city of Valencia, Ecuador’s Guayaquil, and Baku in Azerbaijan—also have carbon-neutral and zero-emission dreams. In October 2019, the Port of Los Angeles unveiled two new battery-electric top loaders. Rotterdam, which is Europe’s biggest port, is using zero-emission port equipment.
But cutting maritime emissions is not only a local measure. The problem with solitary ports taking a firm environmental stance is that ships can simply head up- or downstream to a competitor port and unload their wares there. Then, the containers get driven around on land instead, defeating the purpose of a zero-emission policy. To counter this effect, Sørensen from Oslo’s climate agency and Neilson from the port say other Norwegian ports have to come on board.
Finding that common ground with local and international partners—and sometimes competitors—is essential to the green port movement. Neilson points to the collaboration between the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which are technically competitors. “In Los Angeles, they have fierce competition in regard to the different terminals … but at the same time they say, ‘We don’t compete on security and we don’t compete on environment.’”
If ports in the Oslofjord and across the region can band together to do the same, Neilson is confident Oslo won’t lose business. But, if becoming zero-emission does mean losing customers in the short term, that’s a price the city is willing to pay. “I think it’s a powerful message that this is possible here, and it’s not just [possible] because we have a lot of funding,” says Neilson. “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right development we need in many port cities around the world.”
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