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Does L.A.’s Scooter Data Program Violate State Privacy Laws?

As more cities adopt a controversial scooter tracking system pioneered by Los Angeles, concerns about rider data privacy are spreading.

Laura Bliss

The Burning of the Amazon, in 7 Maps and Graphs

The rash of wildfires now consuming the Amazon rainforest can be blamed on a host of human factors, from climate change to deforestation to Brazilian politics.

Sarah Holder

Indian Cities Are Becoming Urban Heat Islands

The urban heat island effect is growing in large cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and will exacerbate the risks posed by heat waves.

Shekhar Chandra

Will Sea-Level Rise Claim Egypt’s Second-Largest City?

Al-Max village in Alexandria was ruined by floods in 2015. Yet, despite climate change’s growing threat to the city, critics say it has scarcely been addressed.

Amir Khafagy

Are McMansions Making Everyone Unhappy?

Homes have gotten bigger, but Americans aren’t any more pleased with the extra space.

Joe Pinsker



What We’re Reading

How an e-bike changed my life (New York Times)

Is Seattle’s microtransit to light rail stations working? (Crosscut)

Waze hijacked L.A. in the name of convenience. Can anyone put the genie back in the bottle? (Los Angeles Magazine)

A Philadelphia shootout left neighbors wondering: Why did police make a mess and leave us to clean it up? (Philadelphia Inquirer)

This is life in America’s booming service industry (Time)


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Where Do College Grads Live? The Top and Bottom U.S. Cities

This is the second post in a four-part series on the economic performance of America’s cities. Today, we cover education and talent.

Talent, or what economists refer to as human capital, is a key driver of economic growth. A wide body of studies documents the role of education in the economic growth of cities, regions and nations. But, talent has increasingly concentrated in a relatively small number of cities, leading to a growing divergence in talent across places.

To get at this, I worked with a team of researchers to analyze the economic performance of American’s 50 largest core or principal cities over the five-year period of 2012 to 2017. Economist Todd Gabe crunched the numbers, using the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey.

To provide context, we did a rough comparison of these 50 cities to America’s 53 large metros (with more than 1 million people). We excluded two metros, Charlotte and Grand Rapids, Michigan, because they experienced significant boundary changes that would have affected their results; that leaves a comparison group of 51. It is important to note that eight of the 50 largest cities do not belong to any of the 53 large metros, and that not all of these metros have cities that number among the 50 largest. Our city-to-metro comparisons are for illustrative purposes only.

Today, we cover trends in highly educated people—those with college degrees and those with advanced degrees—across America’s 50 largest cities. Karen King, my colleague at the University of Toronto School of Cities, helped analyze the data and make the comparisons, and my CityLab colleague David Montgomery created charts.

College Graduates

The number of college graduates provides the most basic measure of a particular type of talent or human capital. The chart below shows the share of adults with a bachelors’ degree or higher across America’s 50 largest cities and the table below shows the top ten cities with the largest and smallest shares. The leading city has roughly four times the share of the lagging city. In the six top cities, more than half of adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher; in the lowest ranked city just 15 percent do.

The leaders on college grads are a veritable who’s who of leading tech hubs. Seattle tops the list with more than 60 percent of adults having graduated college, with San Francisco; Washington, D.C.; Raleigh; Austin; and Minneapolis rounding out the top six. In the remaining four cities—Portland, Denver, Atlanta, and Boston—nearly half of adults have graduated college.

The list of the cities with the highest share of college grads overlaps considerably with the list of leading metros, with eight places showing up on both. Atlanta ranks ninth of the cities but 15th of metros. San Jose ranks first among metros (with a 43.4 percent share of college grads), but 13th of the 50 largest cities.

The cities with the smallest shares of college grads are a combination of Rust Belt cities, like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Memphis, and less-skilled Sun Belt cities like Las Vegas, Fresno, and El Paso.

There is less overlap between cities and metros with the lowest shares of adults with a bachelor’s degree or high. Just Las Vegas, Memphis, San Antonio and Jacksonville show up on both lists. Detroit is the lowest ranked city but ranked 13th among large metros (with a 31.1 share of college grads). Louisville is the fifth lowest ranked metro (with 28.8 percent college grads) and ranks 15th among cities (with a 29.9 percent share).

The superstar cities of New York and Los Angeles rank much lower down the list, New York ranks 18th with 37.3 percent college grads, and Los Angeles ranks 24th with 34.4 percent. Chicago ranks 17th with 38.8 percent. Interestingly, San Jose in the heart of Silicon Valley ranks outside the top ten; it is 13th with 43.4 percent of adults having graduated college—about the same as Charlotte or Oakland.

The pattern is rather different in the next chart, which tracks the growth in college grads between 2012 and 2017. Now Miami tops the list with nearly 50 percent growth, far outpacing second place Austin, which has 35 percent growth. Fort Worth is next, with 30-plus percent growth. And the remainder of the top ten—Las Vegas, Denver, Charlotte, Boston, Mesa, Nashville, and Seattle—clock in with between 25 and 29 percent growth.

There is considerable difference in the cities that are growing their share of college grads at a fast clip and the metros that are doing so. Rust Belt metros like Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, as well as Orlando and Tucson—a city with a very low share of college grads—number among the top ten metros for their growth. Miami, which is the large city with the fastest growth rate for college grads, ranks 33rd among large metros with just 9 percent growth of college grads.

The gap between the fastest and slowest growing cities is considerable. The city with the slowest growth in college grads, Arlington, Texas, registered barely any growth at all. Tulsa had just 6 percent growth, and the rest had between 10 and 13 percent growth, less than half that of the top ten cities. Interestingly, Washington, D.C., and New York number among the ten large metros with the slowest growth rate in number of college grads.

Advanced Degrees

Next we turn to a more refined measure of talent, the share of adults who hold graduate or professional degrees. The divergence between the leading and lagging cities is incredible—with the leading city having a concentration of advanced degree holders that is five times greater than that of the lowest ranked city. In the leading cities, roughly 20 to 33 percent of adults hold advanced degrees, while just 6 to 10 percent do in the lowest ranked cities.

Here, the leading cities are again a who’s who of leading tech or knowledge hubs. Washington, D.C. tops the list by a significant margin, followed by Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. Atlanta, perhaps surprisingly, ranks fifth. Minneapolis, Portland, Denver, Austin, and San Diego round out the top ten. Nine of the top ten cities with the highest shares of graduate degrees are the same as the cities with the highest shares of bachelor’s degrees and above, the lone exception being San Diego, which ranked just outside the top ten at 11th in share of college grads.

The superstar cities of New York and Los Angeles rank further down the list: New York is in 15th place with 15.7 percent of adults holding advanced graduate degrees, and Los Angeles in 33rd with 11.6 percent.

Five places—Washington, D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, and Denver—overlap both the city and metro list of places with the highest shares of adults with a graduate degree.

The bottom ranked cities are a combination of Rust Belt and Sun Belt cities. Despite images of its resurgence, Detroit takes the bottom spot, with just six percent of its adult population holding an advanced degree. Milwaukee is the other Rust Belt city among the bottom ten, in fourth place. The preponderance of the bottom ten are Sun Belt or Western cities including Fresno, Mesa, Jacksonville and Las Vegas, and four Texas cities—El Paso, Fort Worth, Arlington, and San Antonio. Three places—Las Vegas, Jacksonville and San Antonio—appear on the bottom ten list for both cities and metros.

The pattern is quite a bit different when we look at the change in adults with advanced education. Again, the divergence is incredible, with the leading city growing talent at a ten times faster rate than the most laggard city. The top ten cities have growth rates of between a third and almost half compared to growth rates of 5 to 16 or so percent for bottom ten cities.

Perhaps surprisingly, Miami again tops the list of cities on the growth in adults with graduate degrees, with a whopping five-year growth rate of nearly 50 percent, or ten percent a year. Only it, Austin, and Charlotte appear on both this list and that for growth in adults with a bachelor’s degree and above. The top ten includes tech hubs like Austin, Raleigh, San Jose and Seattle, but also Charlotte, Omaha, Fresno, Indianapolis, and Sacramento.

Four of the top ten cities with the fastest growth in graduate degrees also number among the top ten metros on this score, the tech hubs of Austin, Raleigh, Seattle and San Jose. Miami, which has the fastest growth in adults with graduate degrees, comes in 37th among large metros with just 10.4 percent. Rust Belt metros like Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Memphis along with New Orleans stand alongside tech hubs like San Jose, Austin and Seattle, among the top ten metros with the fastest growth in advanced degrees.

The cities with the slowest growth in advanced degrees are a mixed bag. There are Rust Belt cities like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Louisville, but also Sun Belt and Western cities like Tulsa, Albuquerque, Atlanta, Tucson, Arlington, and Dallas. None of the cities with the slowest growth in advanced degrees overlaps with the list of metros with the slowest growth.

Once again, the superstar cities of New York and Los Angeles rank significantly further down the list. Los Angeles is 31st with 20 percent growth, New York 39th with just under 20 percent growth (lagging even Detroit). A number of leading tech hubs, which rank high up the list in concentration of highly educated talent, also experienced slow growth in graduate degrees. Washington, D.C., clocks in at 21st with 25 percent growth; and San Francisco ranks all the way down at 34th with 20 percent growth.

Our next post looks at yet another measure of talent, examining how the nation’s 50 largest cities stack up on the share of the workforce that is part of the creative class.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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America’s First Hub for Restorative Justice Will Open in Oakland

There are more than 3,000 local jails in the United States and another few thousand courthouses. In some people’s eyes, these institutions are monuments to public safety; to others, they represent the forces driving mass incarceration. This fall, a building will open in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood that hopes to become a different sort of community landmark, dedicated both to keeping the community safe and to breaking the cycle of poverty and imprisonment.

For years, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a local nonprofit focused on community-building and reducing incarceration, and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC United), which fights for fair wages for restaurant workers, collaborated to develop the concept for Restore Oakland, a nonprofit hub and community center. In a 20,000-square-foot building catty-corner from the Fruitvale BART station, Restore Oakland will house local organizations and provide job training and housing assistance. A fine-dining restaurant called COLORS—whose staff will include formerly incarcerated people—a café, and a kitchen with space for entrepreneurs to run incubators will open on the ground floor.

Restore Oakland is named for the restorative-justice work that will take place there: This is an approach to dealing with crime that brings together the victim and the wrongdoer to resolve the harm caused, outside of court. At least two youth-oriented restorative-justice nonprofits, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) and Community Works West, will have office space in the building. They partner with the Alameda County District Attorney’s office to divert cases involving people aged 15 to 24 into community conferencing, and have them meet the people they’ve harmed before charges are finalized; and with probation officers, to ease the transition into the community and reduce recidivism.

After a soft launch this July, nonprofits are already filling the rooms. The restaurant and facilities will be fully operational by September.

“Too often, when people think of the term ‘public safety,’ they’re thinking of punishment and prisons,” said Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center. “We felt a need for something equally tangible, equally visible, in concrete, brick, and mortar form.”

Architect Deanna Van Buren says she’s commissioning a mural artist to work on Restore Oakland’s facade. (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

For Bay Area nonprofits contending with rising rents, laying a long-term stake in anything brick and mortar has been difficult. The Ella Baker Center has occupied nine different office spaces over its 20-year history. Securing an eviction-proof gathering hub could be transformative for the city, Norris says, and the nonprofits that serve it: “If we’re going to have strong communities, we need strong community-centered institutions.”

The project was funded in part by an anonymous donation of $1 million, Next City reported, and supported with new-market tax credits. In its previous incarnations, the building had been a nightclub and a department store; most recently, it had been filled with a rabbit warren of small shops and cobweb-filled rooms. When the Ella Baker Center and ROC purchased it, they turned to the Oakland-based activist architect Deanna Van Buren, co-founder of the architecture and real estate non-profit Designing Justice + Designing Spaces.

Van Buren has built her career around the idea of a world without prisons. Her firm’s past projects include the Near Westside Peacemaking Center in Syracuse, New York, and The Women’s Mobile Refuge Center, which will shelter San Francisco women who were recently released from jail or have experienced domestic abuse. In 2018, she was the recipient of the University of California, Berkeley’s Berkeley-Rupp Architecture Professorship and Prize.

Deanna Van Buren speaking at Restore Oakland’s soft opening in July. (Brooke Anderson)

“One of the big dreams out of this space is: what would it look like to have a place where anybody in this neighborhood, instead of calling the police, this is a space they come to,” Van Buren said, as she took CityLab on a tour of the building. “It’s an opportunity for folks to work together, and talk together, and work with non-profits.”

Restore Oakland will be the only dedicated hub for restorative justice in the entire U.S., Van Buren and Norris say. Oakland is hyper-diverse, but the legacy of incarceration there has disproportionately impacted African Americans: According to city data, black Oaklanders are almost 13 times more likely to be arrested for a felony than white Oaklanders, and 8.6 percent more likely to be in jail. The city has long been, and remains, a center for anti-incarceration activism.

In the city’s Temescal neighborhood, the prison abolition group that Angela Davis co-founded, Critical Resistance, just acquired a 7,000-square-foot store that once sold baby goods. It plans to turn it into a “real-life Wakanda Institute,” according to KQED. Oakland Ceasefire, launched in 2012, uses “group violence intervention” to reduce gun violence; the Alameda County Bar Association credits it, along with more targeted policing by Oakland’s police department, with getting Oakland to its “lowest number of homicides in almost 20 years” in 2018.

Today, a lot of local rehabilitation work and organizing takes place in homes or in decentralized office buildings scattered around the area, says Reetu Mody, Restore Oakland’s interim executive director. But with the heightened risk of immigration enforcement raids, Mody says people have been more reluctant to open their doors.

Restore Oakland will offer a safe, collaborative meeting environment for those activists, she says. Building on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, much of which was planned in the basements of churches and libraries, the center features several meeting rooms on the basement floor. “There is something [important] about knowing you’re doing subversive work underground,” said Mody.

Causa Justa/Just Cause will operate a housing rights clinic on the first floor; the Ella Baker Center, RJOY, and Community Works West have offices on the second floor.

A rendering of the second-floor non-profit offices. (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

Van Buren has baked restorative-justice principles into the design of Restore Oakland. A room for conflict resolution and action planning has two entrances, and two adjacent spaces where people can cool off and speak privately. It’s pale blue, a color chosen for being calm and soothing. One wall is a chalkboard; on the day I visited, organizers had sketched concentric circles representing the ripple effects of healing on a community. “Change the narrative,” someone had written in pink capital letters; “fostering growth,” read another note, a flower blooming beneath it.

The conflict resolution space. (Designing Justice + Designing Spaces)

The restaurant, too, is meant to fulfill a twofold promise: providing more points of connection and giving people pathways into stable work through a training kitchen. “We’re finding that in most of our projects, food is an anchor,” said Van Buren.

Government efforts to reduce mass incarceration have often been tantamount to “shifting deck chairs on the Titanic,” the Ella Baker Center’s Norris says: Ankle monitors and probation have supplanted investments in economic justice and opportunity. At Restore Oakland, Norris hopes that the web of resources will get to a more holistic solution.

Though he hopes that the model can be replicated across the Bay Area and the country, Restore Oakland’s location—adjacent to the Fruitvale BART station, deep within East Oakland—is significant. It’s at the Fruitvale BART station that 22-year-old Oscar Grant was killed by a police officer in 2009, and around the corner that a new Transit Village has risen in an effort to stymie gentrification.

“[Fruitvale] is one of the most diverse neighborhoods within an already really diverse City of Oakland,” said Norris. “We think it’s a great place to demonstrate that you can do development in the interest of people.”

But Restore Oakland is not just open to people in the immediate vicinity—because of displacement and migration, the center will serve clients from farther afield. “I don’t think we’re going to define … who’s part of the Bay, or what is Oakland,” said Mody. “So much of what Oakland is was created by people who are being forced to leave.”

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Navigator: Beyond Those Paper-Thin Walls

I once woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of metal banging against a wall. Someone was yelling, but, in my half-asleep state, I waved it off as an unruly neighbor returning drunk from a party. When the noise didn’t stop, I listened closer. “Help!” he was yelling. My neighbor who uses a wheelchair had fallen. I got up and called 911 for him. That was perhaps the only time I was thankful for the thin walls of my condo building.

Having thin walls is a reminder that cities are jam-packed with people. While city living ) ¤ Crossing the DMZ to become a K-pop star. (Washington Post) ¤ Anthony Bourdain’s best hits. (Entertainment Weekly) ¤ Grab a bat; competitive wiffle ball is a thing! (The Ringer) ¤ How the e-bike changed a woman’s life. (New York Times) ¤ The evolution of America’s national park branding. (Fast Company) ¤ That time Philly bombed its own people. (Vox) ¤ Caught in the cross-fire of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy battle: bubble tea. (Fortune)

View from the ground:

@kimzimm985 captured the CN tower between buildings in Toronto. @metromapas highlighted apartment balconies in Panama City. @bonche__ visited the Copenhagen waterfront and its asymmetric buildings. @p_adhita captured the high-rises of Sudirman, Jakarta

Showcase your photos with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we’ll feature it on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.

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Does L.A.’s Scooter Data Program Violate State Privacy Laws?

If you’ve jumped on a dockless scooter in Los Angeles in the past few months, there’s an excellent chance that your every move was tracked—not just by the scooter company, but by the city itself. As of last year, L.A. officials require operators to send the city real-time pings about where scooters are, when they’re in use, and where they’re headed.

These data collection practices have been controversial from the start among mobility companies and privacy advocates, who say such location data could be used to reveal identities and compromise rider privacy. Now, a new analysis of state privacy law by the California Legislative Counsel raises the specter of possible legal complications for local governments that require operators to share such sensitive trip data.

Passed in 2015, California’s Electronic Communications Privacy Act (CalECPA for short) is a legal framework that fleshes out an individual’s right to privacy under the state constitution. CalECPA is designed to block law enforcement agencies from accessing user data, including emails, text messages, and personal information stashed online, without a warrant. Other states, including Maine, Vermont, and Utah, have similarly clarified and bolstered existing federal privacy protections within their own borders.

But local government regulators have also spotted opportunities to harness digital data collection for their own purposes, and in contrast with law enforcement agencies, it’s a less clear where they fall under the purview of ECPA. The battle for control over public rights-of-way between public officials and private mobility services is one of those murky arenas, and it is very much live in L.A.

In late 2018, the city’s department of transportation rolled out an ambitious “mobility data specification” program, which required companies to submit granular, real-time trip data to the city. The purpose of the program was to rein in the recent explosion in dockless scooters and other emerging forms of “micromobility,” and to find out how they’re affecting more established modes of transportation. MDS, as it’s known in wonk-speak, is a first-of-its-kind approach by a city to establish control over public streets before history can repeat itself: in the early days of ride-hailing, companies like Uber and Lyft operated with little respect for regulations and were largely unwilling to comply with cities’ requests for data.

With real-time information about the travel patterns of dockless scooters—and, eventually, ride-hailing cars and autonomous vehicles, if all goes according to plan—a city like L.A. can “see” where, for example, vehicles are left scattered on the sidewalk, or if companies aren’t keeping enough of them available in underserved neighborhoods. Right now, complying with these data-sharing agreements is required for scooter companies in L.A. to receive an operating permit.

What’s more, since the L.A. launched the open-source software that makes MDS run, more than a dozen other municipalities around the U.S. have adopted a version of it as well. And some are using it aggressively: Last month, Santa Monica cracked down on the dockless scooter startup Bird after finding that its MDS data feeds had “consistent anomalies” that resulted in inaccuracies.

From the start, though, players like Bird, Lyft, Uber, and Lime have objected to the data-sharing mandate on the basis that it could violate customer privacy. L.A. has promised that the granular trip information is anonymized and aggregated once the city receives it. But scooter companies are not alone in worrying that an outsider—be it a malicious actor, or a law enforcement agency such as ICE—could use the data to re-identify frequent users with relative ease. Location data researchers have shown that even highly aggregated sets of mobility data provide little personal privacy.

Consumer identity protections are just the beginning of the companies’ concerns. Down the road, MDS may eventually point to an urban future where local government could exert direct control over individual vehicles. That’s something assuredly not in the business plan of mobility startups.

So those companies have been putting up a fight. Earlier this year, Uber, Lyft, Bird, and Lime supported a bill known as AB 1112, which would have had the state preempt any city from collecting granular trip data altogether. A number of California cities, including L.A., Oakland, San Francisco, and Anaheim, swooped in to stall the bill earlier this summer.

Meanwhile, a group of mobility companies approached another privacy-literate California lawmaker, Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, to take a look at LADOT’s unusual permitting requirements. Irwin’s office then requested an opinion of the state’s Legislative Counsel, which is like an in-house firm of legal experts that helps lawmakers interpret their own statutes. Earlier this month, the counsel answered her query. While the response is thorough and complicated, its takeaways suggest that L.A. could face complications if its data collection program is ever litigated in court. The counsel’s two conclusions about MDS are that:

  • CalECPA restricts a local government agency, as a political subdivision of the state, from requiring the provision of real-time location data as a condition of an operating permit, and
  • A government entity is exempted from this restriction if a specific rider directly consents to share their data—but not through a mobility operator as an intermediary.  

Not surprisingly, L.A. full-throatedly disagrees with this opinion. Last week, Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT, wrote a letter to L.A.’s City Council stating that the legislative counsel’s opinion “too narrowly interprets the question presented and fails to recognize the Legislature’s clear intent of CalECPA to address the actions  of law enforcement agencies.” She continued:

CalECPA was not written to limit the actions of regulatory agencies or to control the regulation of dockless mobility devices in the public right-of-way by a local department of transportation. In fact, there is no mention in either the statutory text or legislative history of any intent by the Legislature to limit or restrict a government regulator from using electronic data within the course and scope of regulating entities that are not electronic communications services

Furthermore, Reynolds states, LADOT consulted with the city attorney and “does not find that CalECPA applies to existing dockless permit requirement, and will continue to require full compliance from mobility provides.”

To be clear, analyses by the Legislative Counsel do not hold precedential value in the way that a decision issued by a judge in a courtroom does, and they don’t necessarily carry much weight in a lawsuit. They’re just opinions, similar to the ones that a neutral, nonpartisan law firm might write about legal proceedings that it isn’t involved in, for the purpose to shedding light on the complexities of the law.

But L.A. has exported the MDS program widely: Seattle, Portland, Minneapolis, New York City, Washington, D.C., and many others have integrated its powers into their scooter-permitting programs in some way. And for good reason—cities want to to reduce congestion, bring down transportation emissions, and keep sidewalks clear. But meanwhile, state lawmakers are getting ever more interested in the issue of data privacy. This back-and-forth between California legal analysts and city regulators could be only the start of a more contentious debate to come.

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Indian Cities Are Becoming Urban Heat Islands

This June, about two-thirds of India experienced heat-wave conditions. Indian cities witnessed unusually high temperatures, which caused a spike in heat-related deaths. Although India is no stranger to heat waves, in recent years they have become more frequent, more intense, and of longer duration. This is partly because of the urban heat island effect.

An urban heat island is an area that is substantially warmer than its suburban and rural surroundings. This warming effect depends on various factors—a city’s weather conditions, its geophysical characteristics, and the heat from its buildings, vehicles, and inhabitants. The effect is more severe at night than in the daytime, and intensifies during heat waves. It can operate on different scales: It might occur around a single building, in a neighborhood, or citywide.

Due to the phenomenon, the gap between the daytime maximum temperature and the nighttime maximum temperature in major cities has been declining over the years. Or, in other words, hot cities are not only getting hotter, but retaining more heat after dark.

A NASA map shows temperatures across much of India and Pakistan on June 10, 2019. Delhi reached 48 degrees Celsius, or 118 F. (Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

India has been urbanizing at a very fast rate, a trend that is expected to continue in the future. At present, there are 59 urban agglomerations of more than 1 million people in the country. That number is expected to rise to 78 by 2035.

Rapid urbanization is resulting in dramatic land-use changes. Over the past four decades, the built-up area in Delhi increased by 30.6 percent, while cultivated areas decreased by 22.8 percent and dense forest by 5.3 percent. Mumbai, the financial capital of India, became almost entirely paved and concretized in the span of 40 years. In Kolkata, vegetated areas decreased from 33.6 percent of the city to 7.4 percent between 1980 and 2010. In Chennai, the built-up area tripled between 1991 and 2016, while vegetation decreased by 12 percent.

The Energy and Resources Institute, a research nonprofit based in Delhi, found in 2017 that many fast-growing cities in India have been undergoing the heat island phenomenon, some more quickly than others. (Delhi is already dotted with heat islands.) Urban development—often unplanned and in violation of local zoning laws—and the associated reduction in evapotranspiration are main drivers.

“Covering soil with concrete or asphalt prevents water from evaporating from the soil,” said Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “Since evaporation is a cooling process—it takes energy to evaporate water—reducing evaporation warms the ground. In addition, urban surfaces tend to absorb more sunlight than do soil or vegetated surfaces and convert that sunlight to heat. Thus, it is not a surprise that urbanization in India turns many cities to heat islands,” Jacobson said.

Other contributing factors are sick bodies of water, pollution, and economic activity relying on dirty sources of energy. Black carbon aerosol, or soot—from vehicular emissions and the burning of coal and wood for cooking in poor households (especially in urban slums)—absorbs large amounts of solar radiation, trapping heat.

Using an array of global climate models, researchers at MIT found that, in many densely populated cities in India, heat waves are likely to breach the survivability threshold by the end of the century. The threshold is a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degree Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit)—a combined metric of humidity and temperature at which a few hours of exposure can cause death in even very fit people. Urban heat islands will further exacerbate thermal risks from global warming, particularly affecting the health of the roughly 24 percent of India’s urban population living in slums. Even more vulnerable are the country’s 1.8 million homeless people.

“Adding just a degree or two to a heat wave in an already vulnerable region like India can be the difference between life and death,” said Jeremy Pal, a professor of civil engineering and environmental science at Loyola Marymount University, who has authored several research papers on heat waves in South Asia.

Even if global warming is held below 2 degrees Celsius, there is likely to be a significant increase in deadly heat waves, causing many megacities to become heat-stressed. Urban heat islands can affect the severity and duration of heat waves. Death rates during heat waves are often much higher in cities than in their outlying areas, because of the effect.

Growth in air conditioning as temperatures rise compounds the problem. It leads to more greenhouse-gas emissions because India continues to rely heavily on fossil-fuel sources for electricity generation. And as urban heat islands become more intense, the use of water as well as electricity is likely to go up. That will worsen already acute water shortages in Indian cities.

In addition to the other risks to the urban population, urban heat islands also degrade the quality of air and water. Increased energy demand (for cooling) means more air pollution from power plants and more carbon emissions. Higher surface temperatures also lead to ozone formation. When water flows over hot roofs and paved surfaces, that water heats up before it reaches bodies of water, affecting the health of local ecosystems as well as increasing evaporation.

Can the intensity of urban heat islands be checked? Even amid ongoing global warming, targeted strategies could help.

Indian cities could switch to lighter-colored paving or porous green roads and cool roofs, to reflect more solar radiation. (After a severe 2010 heat wave, the city of Ahmedabad implemented a Heat Action Plan, including a cool-roofs program; research has shown this plan has prevented thousands of deaths.) Cities could increase their share of tree cover, which is significantly lower than what’s required to maintain an ecological balance.

People in urban areas could be encouraged to grow climbing plants and curtains of vegetation outside their windows. Greenbelts around cities, for wind paths, would allow the passage of exhaust heat from urban air conditioners and automobiles. Finally, air-quality standards should be enforced rigorously and continuously—not just when air pollution reaches hazardous levels.

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The Children’s Book Map That Led Me Out of Depression

Why can’t I eat? Why is everything so difficult? Why can’t I feel happy?

Submerged in the depths of depression during college, I wandered into a rare book store on Manhattan’s West Side in search of momentary peace. There, the glimmer of a 35th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth caught my eye.

I had savored reading and rereading The Phantom Tollbooth back in elementary school. Popular with generations of young readers, it tells the story of a boy named Milo who complains of endless boredom and finds a mysterious package in his room. In it, he discovers a fantastical world called the Lands Beyond that he must navigate to free twin princesses who are imprisoned in the Castle in the Air. The book charts these territories with such vivid specificity that young readers feel as if they are entering too.

I was a hand-raising, school-loving kid, so Milo’s adventure validated my enthusiasm for learning. It encouraged me to search for possibility and complexity in the world, and reframed my particular passion for art and writing as assets, instead of pushing them away to gain the acceptance of my peers.

Back in Manhattan, I bought a copy and brought the book back to my dim dorm room. I flipped open the inside cover. There it was, the map of the Lands Beyond. Inked in blue, the illustrations (created by renowned cartoonist Jules Feiffer) are utterly fanciful, and would never work for a to-scale map of the real world. But that isn’t its point. The Lands Beyond represent the twists and turns of the labyrinths of one’s mind, on a search for wisdom.

A map of the Lands Beyond, from The Phantom Tollbooth. Illustration © 1961 by Jules Feiffer, renewed 1989 by Jules Feiffer. Courtesy of Random House.

On the left side of the map, the entrance to the fantasy world is called Expectations. When Milo arrives there, a character from the book called the Whether Man explains what kind of place it is. “Expectations is the place you must always go to before you can get to where you’re going,” he tells a bewildered Milo. “Of course, some people never go beyond Expectations, but my job is to hurry them along whether they like it or not.”

As I recalled that line, I braced. I had so many rigid expectations of myself that I often felt stuck.

Not too long before, I had taken a semester off during my second year of college to enter treatment for an eating disorder. At the time, I viewed this as a failure. I had failed to take care of myself, just as I’d failed to recover from anorexia in previous years, I believed. Here I go again, I thought.

But now, as I traced the cream-colored page with my finger, I remembered how a person’s perspective can shift. When Milo arrives in a place called the Forest of Sight, he exclaims, “Isn’t it beautiful?” Another boy answers, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s all in the way you look at things.” The boy proceeds to give him a lesson about this, referring to a mundane object. “From here that looks like a bucket of water,” he says, “but from an ant’s point of view it’s a vast ocean, from an elephant’s just a cool drink, and to a fish, of course, it’s home.”

At another point in the book, Milo lands in the Doldrums—winding paths that swirl around and lead to nowhere. He shouts, “WHAT ARE THE DOLDRUMS?” An answer comes from a disembodied voice: “The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.” Eventually, Milo makes it out using the power of his imagination: He envisions birds that swim and fish that fly.

That day, as I gripped tightly onto my favorite book from childhood, something shifted in me, too. I remembered the person I’d been in my younger years: passionate about learning, curious about the world, unabashedly creative. Back then, my inner world had been full of color, in contrast to the bleak landscape in which I now felt trapped.

Maybe I had to follow the same kind of clues that Milo did to understand my own self-worth. Maybe I needed to look at myself from alternative points of view. If I lingered here in the place in my mind where failures were all I could see, my life would never change.

If I wanted to return Rhyme and Reason to my world, I would have to stop these constant interrogations of my self-worth. To reach new places and learn about who I was, I could not dwell forever in the land of Expectations or the Doldrums. I had to reframe my thoughts, create space for hope, and envision who I might still become. And I had to find some humor again.

Gradually, I did. It took time and tears: The foothills of confusion were still all around me, and I needed to conquer my own mountains of ignorance. But after that afternoon with the map of the Lands Beyond, I started to wake up from what had felt like a long dormancy. I allowed myself to re-engage in therapy and began to understand that reentering treatment was not a failure. Instead, it was a life-changing decision not to lose another second for my body by following such dangerous demands.

I decided that taking a semester off from class wasn’t wrong, either. Rather, it meant that I had succeeded in changing my mind about what my future could be. When I did go back to school, I started to see that my visits to Digitopolis, the kingdom of numbers, and Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, were ways to rewrite the narrative of my life, too.

A few years later, I became a journalist. Now I’m reporting on environmental issues facing cities around the world from my new home in Washington, D.C. I still keep a copy of the book in my room. There’s an element of the map of the Lands Beyond that continues past the borders of the book: the Sea of Knowledge. There’s no end to how far one can travel in a body of water with a name like that. Day by day, I cherish the privilege to keep on swimming.

Did this story remind you of a map that’s been important in your life? Tell us your story by filling out this form. We’ll publish a selection of reader-submitted stories later in the series.

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Dual Stream vs. Single Stream Recycling

Single stream versus dual stream recycling collection is a persistent issue. Which approach to recycling collection promotes the most cost effective method to recover, process, and market usable materials and reduces the amount of material going to landfills or incinerators? … Read More

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Why the Amazon Is on Fire

Updated: 2019-08-22

The Amazon rainforest is burning.

That in itself is not extraordinary: July marked the start of fire season. But the whole year has been a record-breaking one in Brazil, which contains 60 percent of the Amazon’s land mass. Scientists at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (also called INPE) said that the number of fires counted is about 85 percent higher than last year; on Tuesday, about one new fire was sprouting every minute.

The forces behind this carbon catastrophe alive are manifold, and human-made: a combination of anthropogenic climate change, which catalyzed :

Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in a cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret. This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky.

The smoke

Huge plumes of smoke from the fires are causing respiratory problems in cities across Brazil, according to the Wall Street Journal. Below, a NASA satellite photo shows the smoke spreading across the country. Reports from São Paulo show daytime skies blackened from the fires raging some 2,000 miles away in Rondonia and Bolivia. The darkness closed in at 4 p.m. one day this week, about two hours earlier than usual; residents collected bottles full of black rainwater.

Smoke from the fires hangs over Brazil. (NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS))

This layer of smoke has other weather impacts on the region: It’s contributing to the heating of the atmosphere, by absorbing sunlight. “This process can suppress the formation of clouds,” NOAA writes.

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