Where to Find Relief in the Big East Coast Heat Wave

A dangerous heat wave is sweeping across two-thirds of the U.S. this weekend, bringing some kind of heat watch or excessive heat warning to nearly 200 million people. Temperatures on Friday pushed into the 90s in several cities, from St. Louis and Chicago in the Midwest to Washington, D.C. and New York City along the East Coast.

With stifling humidity, heat index values in many areas soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit as of 1 p.m. Friday, and several cities are expected to hit record highs, according to the National Weather Service.

While the heat is uncomfortable everywhere, it will be particularly dangerous for those who live in city centers, where the urban heat island effect makes it feel warmer than surrounding suburban and rural areas.

The annual mean air temperature of a city with at least 1 million people can be 2 to 5 degrees warmer than its surroundings, according to the EPA. In the evening, that temperature difference can be as high as 22 degrees. Experts chalk it up to the asphalt, steel, and concrete that trap the heat better than natural vegetation, as well as the disruption of airflow by the grid-like layout of cities.

Even within cities, there can be surprising differences in temperature from one area to the next. In 2017 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enlisted volunteers to map air temperatures throughout Richmond, Virginia, to find where the urban heat island effect is most extreme. It was part of the agency’s Urban Heat Mapping Project, and in the summer of 2018, citizen scientists did the same for Baltimore and D.C. This weekend, theyre measuring temperatures across Boston. Here’s how the heat island has been mapped across those cities:

Baltimore, Maryland

The hot spots of Baltimore, as mapped in the summer of 2018. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

This map, made in 2018, reveals that Baltimore’s hottest spots lie along the car-intensive stretch of Route 40 that runs across the breadth of the city’s lower midtown area. While temperatures spiked to the low 100s in some of the city’s densest developments, green and shady areas like Leakin Park, the Cylburn Arboretum, and Druid Hill Park checked in as much as 16 degrees cooler.

That means visitors to Artscape, one of the nation’s largest outdoor arts festivals, won’t find much relief this weekend: The event is held in midtown Baltimore. The state of Maryland is under an excessive heat warning, with NWS warning that heat index values in the area could hit between 110 and 115 degrees.

Washington, D.C.

The hot spots of D.C., as mapped in the summer of 2018. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

An hour away, in the nation’s capital, the warmest spots clocked in at 17 degrees higher than the coolest spots in August 2018. Unlike Baltimore, however, the hottest area wasn’t downtown, but in the neighborhoods farther north, which are dense residential areas full of row houses, apartments, and commercial centers.

The hottest spots weren’t far from some of the coolest, either: The Armed Forces Retirement Home, which sits near a large golf course, appears to be an island of relative cool surrounded by a sea of hot. And just west of all that is Rock Creek Park, a relative oasis with low elevations and thick trees—it posted temperatures similar to leafy, low-lying areas right along the Potomac River.

Some suburbs—including Silver Spring, Bethesda, Pentagon City, and Alexandria—are relatively hot spots as well, described by NOAA as “warm balloons tethered to the city by warm strings of roadway.”

Richmond, Virginia

This map of Richmond, Virginia, shows where afternoon temperatures were particularly high on July 13, 2017. (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Whereas the heat island effect generally leads cities to be warmer than the areas outside it, the 2017 map of Richmond’s hotspots show how heat intensity can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on land use, how dark or light surfaces are, and how much shade there is.

The cooler area in the center of the map is anchored by a river, but the neighborhoods around it are notably greener on an overhead satellite image. They registered 87 degrees at the time they were measured, compared to 103 degrees in the extended band of dense development that represents the hottest areas in the middle of the city.

Boston, Massachusetts

The urban hotspots of Boston, based on 2015 data. (Trust for Public Land)

NOAA’s Urban Heat Mapping Project is using this sweltering weekend to make its own heat island map for Boston and Cambridge. Volunteers will fan out across the area to echo what’s already been done for D.C., Baltimore, and Richmond, and if temperatures reach 100 degrees on Saturday, they’ll be documenting the heat island on a record-setting day. (The current record for July 20 was set in 1991, according to Boston Magazine, and the city has only recorded triple-digit temperatures 25 times since records began in 1872.)

Meanwhile, researchers at the Trust for Public Land mapped out the range of land surface temperatures across the metro area using 2015 data to show where the hot spots are.

According to Boston Magazine, the area is expected to experience “island weather” thanks to the humid tropical that will get trapped in the city, making it a “hot, damp, and probably smelly convection oven instead of a tropical oasis.”

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The urban hotspots of Philadelphia, based on 2017 data. (Trust for Public Land)

Philadelphia, like many of its neighbors, is under an excessive heat warning, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees and heat index values reaching as high as 115 degrees this weekend. Hot spots include South Philadelphia, where brick homes located in a “concrete checkerboard” stretch for miles. Warehouse districts also show warmer temperatures on the Trust for Public Land map of hotspots in 2017, as do areas with large parking lots surrounding attractions like the city’s stadiums.

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CityLab Daily: Will There Ever Be a City on the Moon?

What We’re Following

Full moon fever: When Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind on the moon’s surface 50 years ago tomorrow, lots of people were already dreaming about staying. Scientists and sci-fi writers imagined igloo-shaped buildings, underground cave habitations, lunar farms, and all manner of moon bases. From a technological perspective, there was nothing stopping humanity from following the Apollo missions with a permanent settlement.

(NASA, Kitmacher, Ciccora artists)

Of course, none of this has come to pass: Living on the moon remains an impractical fantasy. But NASA has been polishing its plans to return to the moon and establish a more lasting foothold, along the lines of Antarctic research facilities or the International Space Station. And private tech companies are plotting ways to extract profits from the Earth’s astral companion. CityLab’s David Montgomery talked to scientists and science-fiction writers about why our moon-town dreams haven’t come true so far, and what these settlements might be like if they ever do. As one astrobiologist tells him, “A lot can happen in several thousand years”: We Were Promised Moon Cities

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Startups Are Abandoning Suburbs for Cities With Good Transit

A new study finds that new business startups are choosing cities with good public transportation options over the traditional suburban locations.

Richard Florida

The Surprisingly High-Stakes Fight Over a Traffic-Taming ‘Digital Twin’

Why are some mobility experts spooked by this plan to develop a data standard that would allow cities to build a real-time traffic control system?

Laura Bliss

The Lonely Death of a South Texas Skyscraper

The First Pasadena State Bank, a 12-story modernist tower inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, has dominated this small town near Houston since 1962.

Kriston Capps

Why London’s Proposed ‘Tulip’ Tower Won’t Bloom

Sadiq Khan used his discretionary powers to cancel the Norman Foster design. Does this signal a tougher attitude to flashy development?

Feargus O’Sullivan

How the Volkswagen Beetle Sparked America’s Art Car Movement

When the Beetle was first introduced, Americans had never seen anything like it. Among art car enthusiasts, it became the ideal canvas for self-expression.

John A. Heitmann



What We’re Reading

It’s the record-breaking overnight temperatures that could make this heat wave deadly for cities (Curbed)

Why Bill de Blasio is facing criticism for the Eric Garner’s case (Vox)

Here’s the most complete map so far of Amazon’s camera surveillance partnerships with local police (BuzzFeed News)

Op-ed: How drivers can beat Uber at its own game (New York Times)


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

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How ‘Corn Sweat’ Makes Summer Days More Humid

As hot, sticky weather descends on much of the country this weekend, some of the stickiness in Midwestern cities may be due to an unexpected phenomenon: “corn sweat.”

That’s right. Even if you’re in the middle of a concrete jungle, those millions of acres of corn (and other crops) in the country’s heartland are still shaping your weather in powerful—and uncomfortable—ways.

“Under conditions like we have now where it’s very warm to begin with, and the atmosphere has a significant amount of moisture in it already, the crop is just adding moisture to that, making conditions feel even more humid,” said Dennis Todey, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub.

How corn ‘sweats’

Plants, like humans, shed water when it gets too hot. In their case, they suck up water through their roots and then push it out through tiny holes in their leaves called stomata.

“When [water] converts from that liquid form to that gas form, it takes a lot of energy with it,” said Joe Lauer, a professor and corn agronomist at the University of Wisconsin. “The upshot is it cools the leaf down.”

But all that water a plant pushes out of its stomata goes somewhere: into the air.

The process is technically called transpiration or evapotranspiration, analogous to perspiration in animals. When it’s corn that’s evapotranspiring, the process is often dubbed “corn sweat,” a special nickname because of the prominent effect it can have on the weather.

One corn plant doesn’t make a big difference. But a full field can raise the dew point—a measure of how much water is in the air—by 5 degrees Fahrenheit. A single acre of corn can give off up to 4,000 gallons of water per day. And the U.S. has lots and lots of cornfields: more than 90 million acres.

Acres of corn by U.S. county, according to data from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture. (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The result is a wave of humidity that rolls across entire regions, from Denver to Pittsburgh.

The humidity from corn sweat is most pronounced in the cornfields themselves, but it reaches cities, too. There, it combines with the added heat from the urban heat island effect to create a particularly unpleasant stickiness.

“Once that moisture’s up in the air, it kind of just blows around with the general motion of the wind and weather patterns,” said Eric Ahasic, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Minnesota.

The effect can be considerable. Ordinarily, high dew points above 80 degrees are only really seen along the coasts, especially near warm seas like the Gulf of Mexico. A day passes for humid in inland climates if the dew point passes 70 degrees.

“But what we’ve seen really develop recently in the last 10 [or] 20 years, we’ve seen those 80-degree dew points get up into the Midwest,” Ahasic said. “It’s actually that extra moisture being pumped out of the farm fields, and especially the corn.”

Corn isn’t the only plant that transpires. All plants do, including grasses, trees, and other types of crops. “That’s why … you feel cooler under trees—not only because they’re shaded, but they’re also transpiring moisture,” said Todey.

Other crops reach maximum evapotranspiration at other times of year. Soybeans, for example, tend to peak in August, while wheat often reaches its max earlier in the summer.

But this time of year, right as the summer heat is peaking, so does the evapotranspiration from those millions of acres of corn, based on their life cycle.

Stressed-out corn

Adding to the misery this year is the wet weather that much of the Corn Belt has received recently. All that rain means more water in the soil for corn plants to slurp up and sweat out.

From the corn’s perspective, evapotranspiration is good—a natural way to cool down when the air gets too hot. When corn can’t evapotranspirate, such as when there’s not enough water in the soil, it reacts instead by closing those stomata and curling up to try to conserve moisture. That physically stresses the plant and can be associated with lower yields, said Rebecca Vittetoe, an extension field agronomist with Iowa State University.

One saving grace for humans—though not corn—is that the extreme highs of this weekend’s heat wave might actually mean less corn sweat than if thermometers stayed in the 80s. That’s because another factor that can cause corn to undergo a stress reaction is temperatures above 90 degrees.

It’s tempting to speculate that if American agriculture were not so corn-dependent, that might bring the humidity down a little. Possibly: In the Dakotas, a recent shift to more corn and soybean production has meant more summer evapotranspiration. But it’s also true that native prairie grasses transpire a lot, too.

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The Lonely Death of a South Texas Skyscraper

For years, the abandoned tower in Pasadena, Texas, has beckoned adventurers. Drone pilots and urban explorers have surveyed the derelict building . That changed in the 1980s, when states began permitting the entry of out-of-state bank holding companies. Once-proud towers hosting state-chartered banks were relegated to branch status or closed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, the number of U.S. banks dropped from 14,500 in the mid-1980s to 5,600 by 2014.

The great wave of consolidation hit First Pasadena, too, and the bank went through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s. JPMorgan Chase got the bank, while another entity ended up with the building; it was shuttered in 2002. Yet another private investor held the tower from 2005 to 2018, but to no end. Finally, its space-age swag long since stripped, the First Pasadena State Bank building came into the possession of the Pasadena Economic Development Corporation. Harris County recently assessed the building’s value at a sorry $100.

“When I first became Mayor, I was looking out my office window and realized I had a perfect view of the First Pasadena State Bank Building,” Pasadena Mayor Jeff Wagner told the Chronicle. “However, instead of looking out onto a stately piece of architectural history, I realized I was looking at a run-down, neglected and dangerous empty building.”

The mayor added, “That’s when it really hit me: For a lot of people, this is their image of Pasadena. And I knew then, we needed to start changing perceptions.”

The First Pasadena State Bank building looms over an empty plaza close to a disused mall. But new shops and restaurants have emerged nearby. (Google Maps)

In the many years it has sat empty, the First Pasadena State Bank building has already undergone substantial changes. It wasn’t designed to have a green roof, but vegetation grows there now. Mother Nature has already started the demolition: Hurricanes have blown the brickwork right off the facade of the building. Most if not all of the leaded stained glass, another Wright flourish, along the cantilevered roof overhang is gone. Architectural historians and YouTube pioneers alike have taken note of the tower’s forlorn state—the latter, while exploring Pasadena’s nearby undead mall or haunted hospital.

With the demolition of the First Pasadena State Bank building on Sunday, the city has an opportunity to try to stitch together a downtown fabric between all these disused sites. (A tall order.) It’s hard to blame the city for the current state of affairs: Pasadena worked for years to force the owner to get the building up to code, to no avail.

But this outcome is still disappointing: For Pasadenans, the expensive demolition will leave the city without its lonely landmark and erase a stately example of Texas modernism. For the rest of us, it will be a missing marker of Wright’s influence.

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The Surprisingly High-Stakes Fight Over a Traffic-Taming ‘Digital Twin’

Imagine driving through Los Angeles in the year 2040. There’s a mix of self-driving and human-controlled vehicles on Santa Monica Boulevard. A serious collision slows traffic to a crawl. But then a special orchestration of traffic signals flips on, parting the sea of cars for an ambulance to throttle through the streets.

This traffic engineering fantasy may be inching to reality, as companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Google, and HERE Maps develop what’s known as “digital twin” technology. The term describes a virtual simulacra of something in the physical world—whether it’s a car engine, a casino floor, or the street network of a major city—that visualizes real changes as they occur, and is “smart” enough to model possible scenario outcomes. In the L.A. example, imagine that a downtown city worker viewed a traffic simulation seconds after the car crash and approved a recommended route for the ambulance, alerting all those connected self-driving vehicles to move aside.

But if the phrase “digital twin” strikes up images of a pixelated doppelgänger dogging your commute, you’re not necessarily wrong to feel creeped out. And you might not have to wait very long to find out if any of those fears are justified: Next week, transportation officials from 13 major American cities will discuss (among other items) whether to collectively to build towards such a model.

“Going forward, each city must manage its own Digital Twin, which will provide the ground truth on which mobility services depend,” states the bylaws of the Open Mobility Foundation, a new nonprofit that counts city leaders on its board of directors.

Launched in late June, the Open Mobility Foundation describes itself as a “public-private forum” to help local governments gain control of their roads from private mobility companies, using big data and open-source code. A central part of OMF’s mission is to govern the the new mobility data standard, commonly known as MDS, unveiled by the Los Angeles department of transportation last year. Currently, MDS pulls in rich, real-time status information about dockless scooters and shared bikes. Many other cities, including Miami, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, and others that have joined OMF, have adopted it.

At their first meeting this coming Monday in Louisville, board members will vote on whether to adopt a set of bylaws that were largely authored by LADOT. A section called “design principles” states that OMF’s work will be “based on the ‘digital twin’ model […], which specifies that municipalities own and control a definitive digital data model of urban mobility.” Having a virtual replica of real-world mobility flows—for scooters and bikes now, and for ride-hailing cars, AVs, and drones in the future—would allow local governments to both trace the movements of individual vehicles, and control them to some extent.

But this notion of a traffic command system is ringing alarm bells in some parts of the small-but-very-chatty world of transportation technology. For one, mobility companies aren’t all thrilled with the idea of cities achieving the power to redirect their vehicles. The concept is also serving as a lightning rod for technologists who work closely with cities, privacy advocates, and some public officials. Everyone wants safer, smoother, more manageable streets. But there are competing visions of how to get there. For a story that starts with scooter data, the stakes here are surprisingly big.

A turning point in the Great Data Wars

The idea for MDS dates back to 2016, when Seleta Reynolds, the general manager of LADOT, was hearing predictions about how autonomous cars might transform cities. To regulate her streets away from becoming a “zero occupancy vehicle” nightmare, she’d need the vehicles to communicate their whereabouts in a consistent manner. In May 2018, the city awarded a contract to a consulting firm called Ellis and Associates to develop a new data language for that purpose.

This was as a major turning point for city officials. For years, Uber and Lyft have prevented cities from accessing information about vehicle locations, car counts, timestamps, and routes. Local governments are eager to use this data to improve traffic flows and regulate cars-for-hire, which have been shown to contribute to congestion and draw riders off public transit. Ride-hailing companies have preferred to set their own terms, claiming that cities lacked the technical skills to process the data they wanted, as well as a vision for applying it. Some metros, like Seattle and New York, have succeeded in capturing data, but Uber and Lyft have also gotten state laws passed to preempt similar attempts.

In 2018, with scooters all but falling from the sky across the U.S., cities resolved to stay ahead of them. Though it had been intended for the cars of the future, MDS also looked like a way to get a handle on the new conveyances that were tripping and delighting Angelenos in equal parts. In September, the city launched a scooter pilot that required participating companies comply with the new standard. Bird and Lime—wary of sullying their relationships with the city, as their ride-hailing predecessors had done—jumped aboard. “At LADOT, our job is to move people and goods as quickly and safely as possible, but we can only do that if we have a complete picture of what’s on our streets and where,” said Reynolds, after announcing the first wave of companies that had agreed to comply. “That’s what this partnership is all about.”

Soon, other cities dealing with their own scooter surge flocked to adopt the new data format. By December, 10 U.S. cities—Austin, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Ana, and Santa Monica—required micromobility providers to share data using MDS. They also flipped on a program that L.A. had built, called “Provider,” that lets companies send the city near-real-time data about individual vehicles’ trips.

A man on an electric scooter rides through the “Four Ladies of Hollywood” gazebo on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. (Richard  Vogel/AP)

But not everyone was a fan. Uber, in particular, has consistently pushed back on the city’s somewhat casual approach to protecting the privacy of all this data being gathered. “We would really love to see a global standard for planning and enforcement,” said Melanie Ensign, a security and privacy communications officer at Uber. ”The challenges we have are a result of the haste in the way LADOT created MDS.”

The ride-hailing titan complained that the city was collecting too much disaggregated, detailed route data that could be potentially be used to identify riders. Numerous studies have proved this as far back as 2014, when researchers identified the actor Bradley Cooper’s taxi rides from a publicly available data set released by New York City’s taxi commission. And a law enforcement agency, whether its’s the local police department or ICE, could also potentially gain access to identifiable information through a records request. Similar scenarios have already occurred.

Los Angeles eventually issued a set of high-level data privacy principles, and has said that it will protect MDS data from outside requests. But this didn’t do much to satisfy critics. Of course, Uber itself has a reputation for loose data protections and unethical user tracking, but they were joined by other dissenters. “LADOT needs to address the serious privacy and civil liberties issues implicated by the Provider API before moving forward with any further stages of this policy,” stated a joint letter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Technology Institute this year.

Los Angeles pushed ahead anyway, and turned on a second program, called “Agency,” that allows it to communicate directly back to bike and scooter companies, alerting them if their vehicles are in the way of a street closure or out of a parking zone. “It’s firmly within my ability to manage and operate the transportation networks, and that’s where we want to stay,” said Reynolds.

But as the city flexed, Uber, Lyft, and Bird squawked. The companies sent a letter of support for AB 1112, a California bill that would block cities from collecting trip-level data through a platform like MDS and regulating micromobility companies across numerous dimensions. “Provider has broader concerns when it comes to privacy,” said Ensign. “Agency is where we run into questions of whether cities should have the ability to dictate where people can travel in city.” For example, should a city have the power to disable a dockless scooter because it’s the wrong spot? Agency isn’t being used that way currently, Reynolds said. But it could.

The threat of state preemption is enough to give any city official pause. In the first half of 2019, Reynolds decided to transfer the governance of MDS to an outside entity with a more formal decision-making structure than Los Angeles alone. In late June, the Open Mobility Foundation was formally announced, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, advisors from the open-source standards group OASIS, and corporate members including Bird, Spin, and Microsoft. (Uber and Lyft weren’t invited to join, Wired reported.) A press release announcing OMF describes a mission “to promote safety, equity and quality of life,” at a time when “the number and type of vehicles using the existing public right-of-way rises dramatically in cities across the country.”

One of the first orders of business at Monday’s OMF board meeting will be to vote on whether to adopt the new bylaws, including the parts about digital twins. “The board can decide to jettison it all,” Reynolds said. But what leaders will be mulling goes far beyond little scooters.

The rise of the digital twin

An early proof of concept for digital twin technology came in 2014. Researchers from the University of Washington announced that they had created “a self-organized and scalable multiple-camera tracking system that tracks humans across the cameras” by pairing Google Street View with a clutch of smart surveillance cameras, trained on city streets. They had demonstrated the possibility of building a close-to-real-time, changing visualization of mobility flows, mapped onto a Google’s panoramic photograph of the world. Machine-learning software rendered any seams invisible.

Since then, the term and technology behind the digital twin concept has gained traction. Microsoft, IBM, Google, Descartes Labs, HERE Maps, and other companies are engineering AI-powered simulacra of brick-and-mortar environments. Some use cases are totally quotidian, like office space designers rearranging digital desks and chairs to prepare an actual floor-plan. And it’s not a totally new concept for some cities—in India, for example, several cities are using digital twin software to manage water and power infrastructure. Portland, Oregon, recently began testing Sidewalk Labs’ Replica, a software that uses realistic-but-fake datasets to model transportation flows.

To date, though, none of these approaches have quite reached the level of direct oversight envisioned in OMF’s bylaws. It takes the current powers of MDS and its various data-exchange programs to a much higher level. A traffic planner of a centralized control system would be alerted to changing conditions in real time, as notified by the real-time streams of data constantly redrawing their digital terrains. Built-in AI would inform an engineer about the best decision to make. OMF offers a couple of examples of how this super-advanced SimCity would run traffic simulations:

As a virtual, ‘living’ equivalent of the city’s many systems, a Digital Twin allows a DOT to model possible strategies to plan for and mitigate problems before and as they occur, and to implement a solution which has been virtually tested in many simulated scenarios to minimize risk. For instance, if a stadium lets out 20,000 patrons at 9:30 pm after a given event, what is the best temporary, one-way street configuration? And for how long should the temporary configuration remain in effect? City planners and operators can use dashboards which provide access to different planes of the physical and virtual worlds to gain the insights needed for effective decision making.

This kind of omniscience is a far cry from the obstructed views of urban movement that some mobility companies now provide to cities. Those are batches of highly aggregated data, such as Uber’s trip data visualization platform, Movement. “These systems represent partial, private and conflicting views of the world that are at odds with the needs and priorities of the city and its residents (and may contradict or attempt to countermand each other as well),” the OMF bylaws state. “Going forward, each city must manage its own Digital Twin, which will provide the ground truth on which mobility services depend.”

Some of this sounds great—a city that’s able to rush ambulances through traffic by rerouting other drivers with a few keystrokes might save lives. Still, some officials and data experts wonder about the excess of individualized information that a digital twin would require a city to own, heightening the privacy concerns that are already clouding MDS. OMF’s bylaws mention some broad privacy principles, but critics—among them, leaders of rival mobility data companies—say that that’s working backwards: Step one should be to hammer out how cities are going to take care of protecting citizen identities, not to keep scaling up their surveillance powers.

“I don’t even understand how that vision is compatible with any notion of privacy,” said William Henderson, the CEO of Ride Report, a startup that worked closely with Los Angeles and other cities to provide mobility data management software. “The vision itself is certainly not the one that we share, and not one that all the cities share.”

Regina Clewlow, the CEO of Populus, a similar software startup that helps cities translate and analyze mobility data, agreed. “Based on our conversations with cities today, we find that many are primarily concerned with having enough detailed data to inform and enforce parking policies, vehicle caps, and equity requirements—not to establish real-time control systems, at least not for scooters,” she said.

There is truth to that. Mainly, local governments are using MDS data descriptively, like checking in to see where bikes and scooters are clustering so that they can improve infrastructure, or to make sure companies are complying with various requirements. Robin Hutcheson, director of the Minneapolis Department of Public Works and one of OMF’s directors, extolled the “data dashboard” that her city procured, which helps her verify that scooters are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, one of the city’s requirements for permitting.

That’s pretty different from establishing real-time control systems for scooters. And it’s telling that no other city except L.A. has adopted “Agency”—the program that allows them to directly communicate back to companies when a scooter is parked incorrectly or need to be cleared away. They’re also stepping more cautiously down the path of telling companies what to do through a digital interface.

Still, some cities are open-minded to the idea of a virtual command center. “We’re not on the same points as L.A. on a lot of things,” said Noah Siegel, the interim deputy director of Portland’s bureau of transportation. In contrast with L.A., Portland’s city council recently released a set of privacy principles that will inform how all of its agencies handle personal data. “But I think the twinning approach is a strong starting point for discussion. The notion that cities should direct trips based on the system as a whole isn’t outrageous.”

Cities mull the future

In urbanist circles, Los Angeles is often lauded for gaining an upper hand in what’s often described as a battle between public versus private interests. Across cities and industry, there is broad consensus that a) cities should be able to manage the roads they own and that b) data is a powerful way to do so. Even with its blemishes, MDS, as a data-sharing standard, seems to be a broadly good thing.

Indeed, it sets the stage for the future: If and when autonomous vehicles arrive en masse, a common framework could make it easier for vehicle makers to send collision reports and car counts to authorities. Theoretically, it could also help cities set up more complex versions of congestion pricing, in which drivers might be charged fees to enter certain popular zones at specific times based on how many cars are already there. Policy wonks tend to say that such a scheme represents the best hope for cities to reduce the carbon emissions rising from the roads. Some kind of digital bird’s-eye-view to help with all of this could be useful.

But L.A.’s haste to implement these far-reaching technologies might spoil those pay-offs by dismissing the most important questions, critics say. For example, could aggregate data answer many of the same questions that planners are after? Uber clearly thinks so. AB 1112, the data-collection-killing bill in California, was put on hold, but there is a good chance it will return. And, is a digital twin that’s built to let cities actively manage streets—as opposed to the more passive approach that most cities currently have—really the best model? That probably deserves an open, transparent dialogue between public officials, companies, and trained academics, Clewlow said.

Indeed, to some minds, the potential issues go beyond data protections. Major ideological differences should be sorted out first, said Kevin Webb, the co-director of SharedStreets. “The bigger question is, what’s the purpose of the technology we deploy in cities?” he asked. “Are we using technology to manage streets or to manage people? All of the concerns about privacy hinge on that question.”

For their part, the cities joining OMF say that they hope to learn about what their peers are doing with data, and to have a role in shaping important conversations about the future of urban mobility. “Reasonable minds can differ over certain facts, but I don’t think that should distract from larger visions,” said Siegel in Portland. “As public leaders, we need to have public regulations, and MDS is one tool that will help us get there.”

Added Hutcheson of Minneapolis: “We’re excited about the opportunities that MDS has provided, and we want to be able to learn more.”

What’s most important for Reynolds is that Los Angeles is no longer the de facto decision-maker behind the technology driving the streets for decades to come. Now it’s up to other cities to help decide which way to turn.  “I wanted there to be a place where the owners of the transportation infrastructure are also the caretakers,” she said. “We want to prevent people from monopolizing the streets, or the choices our citizens have. I didn’t want to get too far ahead in L.A. to say, ‘This is the authoritative way.’”

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How to Make Transit More Accessible to the Visually Impaired

When you are blind or partially sighted, everyday tasks can present a challenge, not least of all finding your way around the city. Things such as locating the ticket machine in a railway station or knowing if your bus has just pulled into the bus stop can be tricky or even impossible to do without help. But since 2018, brightly colored tags have been popping up in Barcelona, and more recently in other Spanish cities to simplify navigation for people who are blind and partially sighted.

Paired with a mobile phone, they are part of a system known as NaviLens developed by the Mobile Vision Research Lab at the University of Alicante and the technology company, Neosistec. Designed to be used alongside traditional sight aides such as canes and guidedogs, NaviLens aims to help visually impaired people feel more independent when moving around the city.  

Following the pilot on a small section of the transport network, Barcelona is extending the NaviLens system to its 2,400 bus stops and 159 metro stations as part of broader efforts to make the city’s transport network more accessible. In 2019, public transit in Madrid also began limited use of the system, and it is also available in Murcia city.  

Using a free app and the camera in their smartphones, users scan their environment to locate the tags which are strategically positioned in bus stops and metro stations by elevators, platforms, stairs, escalators, and ticket machines—anywhere a user needs to take a navigation decision or hear other useful information.

The tags, which are made up of colored squares on a black background, provide users with the kind of information a sighted person would usually take for granted. For instance when approaching a metro station equipped with NaviLens, users access the app and hold up their phones to scan for a tag that will play an audible message on their device telling them at how many meters and in which direction they will find an elevator going down into the station. As they approach the elevator, the user is continually updated with their distance from it.

Once inside the station lobby, a user could then wave their phone to sweep the environment for a tag that lets them know in which direction and how far to walk to reach the ticket vending machines, before scanning the space again for further tags that will help them plot a step-by-step route through to the platform they need, just as a sighted person would do by reading signboards.

Forty-eight-year-old Barcelona-resident Juan Nuñez began losing his sight 10 years ago as a result of a rare, degenerative disease. “Using the metro or bus network became a big challenge. I had to learn the layout of the metro stations by heart,” he says.

But an unanticipated change, such as a relocated bus stop is sometimes all it takes to throw a visually impaired person off their memorized route. A former engineer, Nuñez says he is a fan of new technologies and now regularly relies on a host of mobile apps to help him get around. “It’s easier as it gives you the information you need in the areas you feel lost. For example, there are tags on elevators that will tell you if the elevator is broken or working,” says Nuñez.

At Madrid’s main railway station, Atocha, they are experimenting with using the tags on tactile paving—patterns of textured bumps on the ground that share warnings and information with visually impaired pedestrians.

Tactile paving indicating a tag users can access for information in Madrid’s Atocha station. (NaviLens)

Usually tactile paving can only provide a visually impaired person with general information such as notifying them that they’ve reached a spot in the station where there’s a turn off to a platform. A visually impaired person wouldn’t however, know which platform they’ve reached without having previously learned the layout of the station or asking a passerby. When a NaviLens tag is placed on an area of tactile paving users can scan the tag to know which platforms the turn off leads to. They will also be told whether they need to turn left or right since the system detects from which direction a user is approaching and tailors the message that’s played back.

Once a tag has been located and centered using audio prompts, a user can choose to listen to the information that’s stored in the tag by shaking their wrist. The information is played in the default language of the user’s phone.

“We’ve tried to simulate the same behavior as human vision,” says Javier Pita, CEO of NaviLens. “It’s like using the camera of the phone as the eyes of a visually impaired person.”

The system’s ability to play back information in multiple languages has however, also found it an audience among non-visually impaired tourists visiting Barcelona from places such as Japan who have been using the system as a way to translate directional signboards in the transit system into their own languages.

The tags can be programmed with any kind of information from navigation directions to details about special promotions in a station’s coffee shop. The tags can also provide real-time information such as live bus schedules which a user can listen to as they approach a bus stop as well as alerts of service disruptions.

One of the keys to the success of the system is getting the placement of the tags right to make them easy for visually impaired users to find. For this Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona (TMB), the city’s public transport service, enlisted the support of ONCE, Spain’s national organization for the blind.

Unlike with QR codes, users don’t need to know exactly where a tag is to be able to read it. A tag measuring 20 x 20 centimeters (7.9 x 7.9 inches) can be detected from 12 meters (39 feet) away, even in motion and without having to focus the phone’s camera.

Robin Spinks, a partially-sighted technology expert at the United Kingdom’s Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has been trying out NaviLens in RNIB’s London office. For him, the system’s advances on the QR code are a huge plus.

“The key thing is that the system is unlike traditional QR codes which are difficult for blind or partially sighted people to locate,” he says.

Advances in communications technology have made a significant difference to the lives of people with visual impairments—253 million in the world, by a World Health Organization estimate—as an ever-increasing number of tools for navigation are available on the market.

Among them is U.S. app Aira, which is available for free in some supermarkets across the United States and several airports across the world. Aira allows visually impaired users to connect over the web to a trained live agent who can use the phone’s camera to see what the user is seeing and guide them like a second pair of eyes. Another popular app, BlindSquare uses GPS to describe obstacles in the environment, places of interest and street intersections to users as they travel.

Many apps however, rely either on an internet connection or GPS which only works indoors with special beacons. Bluetooth beacons can be more costly to put in place along an extensive transport network. Raul Casas of the universal accessibility team at Barcelona transport says that the fact that NaviLens can be used without having to install special beacons was one of its advantages for them.

Spinks, who has been testing a number of new technologies, is impressed by NaviLens’ potential for wider use in cities.

“The key thing with NaviLens is it’s a low cost sustainable system that’s reliable,” he says. “Navigation is a challenge for every single blind or partially sighted person—it’s one of the most fundamental challenges we face in day-to-day life and anything that can be done to help in that is beneficial.”

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London Mayor Vetoes the ‘Tulip’ Tower

Surprising news came this week from the office of London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan: Norman Foster’s Tulip, a 1,000-foot-high observation tower, is not coming to the city. The project’s approval was unexpectedly overruled earlier this week after being “called in” by the mayor.

It’s not the tower’s unpopularity that’s a surprise. The flashy but essentially functionless concept has largely been greeted with public ridicule since being unveiled last year. It’s that the mayor has used his discretionary powers to cancel it.

Khan convened a panel of four architects and planners to assess the plans for the Tulip, the case in favor of which was made by representatives of Fosters and Partners. The report stemming from this hearing offers a fairly damning verdict. The Tulip’s bulbous head, the panel’s report said, would have had “the appearance of a surveillance tower.” The planned roof garden, a little above ground level, would not have counted as a real public space, while overall the panel had “reservations about the quality of the architecture.”

This is still putting it mildly. Rising abruptly from a small, narrow footprint, the Tulip’s top-heavy column would have looked like something between a dangerously long hemorrhoid and a weird vibrator. Functionally, its proposers, the J. Safra Group, had at least added an educational component to the project (it had a sky classroom stuck up in the bulb), but there was an overwhelming whiff of vainglory and pointlessness to the plan, leading people to wonder what they would actually gain from the tower’s visual intrusion.

The mayor’s intervention is a far cry from London’s recent past. London’s mayor has always has the power to “call in” controversial building plans for reconsideration, to review and possibly overrule the decisions made by the local borough, where the primary responsibility for planning approval lies in London. When Boris Johnson, likely to be Britain’s next prime minister, was in office, he called in 19 building projects. In every single case, it was to give the green light to a development that a London borough had rejected as unsuitable, unsustainable, or inappropriate.

Among the more notorious projects was a plan to build homes on the site of London’s main postal sorting office at Mount Pleasant (ironically named, given that it has also hosted a prison and sewage dump). The local council rejected the plan because it decided that developers could offer far more affordable units than planned and still turn a healthy profit. After Johnson’s intervention, however, the plan went ahead, promising just 14 percent affordable units on a site which might have sustained 50 percent.

This is a pretty dismal legacy to leave, one that extends far beyond the now notorious Garden Bridge project, a Johnson flagship that cooked up a whole cauldron of bad ideas and sleaze before being canceled. Indeed, it seems that the only occasions on which Johnson did query London architectural plans was when he thought they weren’t flashy enough. His response, for example, to Nicholas Grimshaw’s quietly excellent reconstruction of the city’s London Bridge Station was that it was “boring” and might be improved by gargoyles.

So does this mean that London’s recent friendliness toward uber-flashy, developer-driven construction projects might be drawing to a close?

Whether the bad old days are truly over is up for debate, although clearly some lessons are being learned after this long period of laissez-faire. The criticism of the Tulip’s insufficient public spaces in particular seems to stem from the experience of the nearby Walkie-Talkie, which got waved through on the promise of a new sky park at its peak, and then delivered a pathetically small and hard-to-access fern-filled conservatory. If London is going to let greenwashed projects through in the future, then the greenwashing may at least have to be on a reasonable scale.

At the same time, new towers continue to sprout across the city. In the vicinity of the Tulip’s proposed site, buildings are pushing ever taller. Indeed, one reason the Tulip was rejected is that its proposed location on the edge of this growing high-rise hub would have spoiled the city’s attempts at creating a pyramid silhouette (taller buildings in the middle, shorter at the sides) for the cluster of towers.

The height in itself might not be a problem if what the buildings contained felt more appropriate to London’s needs. But in a city screaming at the top of its lungs for more affordable housing, giving the city more gimmicks like the Tulip and luxury towers intended to flesh out investment portfolios is like offering someone gasping for water a twist of freshly ground pepper—irrelevant and aggravating. Mayor Khan’s rejection of the pointless Tulip seems a step in the right direction, but it’s too soon to call a genuine attitude adjustment in London’s cockpit.

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Startups Are Abandoning Suburbs for Cities With Good Transit

During the late 20th century, startup companies were quintessentially suburban, in standard-issue office parks dubbed “nerdistans.” Think of Silicon Valley, the North Carolina Research Triangle, and the suburbs of Seattle where Microsoft is located.

But high-tech startups have become increasingly urban in the past decade or so, gravitating to dense neighborhoods in downtown San Francisco and Lower Manhattan, which have supplanted Silicon Valley as the nation’s leading centers for such startups.

Now a new study finds a close connection between transit access and startups of all types—not just high-tech startups. The study, by Kevin Credit from the Center for Spatial Data Science at the University of Chicago, uses advanced spatial econometric techniques to examine the connection between transit and business startups in five cities. Two of them, San Jose (Silicon Valley) and Austin, are well-documented startup hubs with underdeveloped transit infrastructure; two others, Philadelphia and Cleveland, have reasonably well-developed transit systems but low rates of startup activity; and Boston has both a high level of startup activity and an established transit system.

He tracks startups using detailed data from the National Establishment Time Series (NETS, a private provider of data on U.S. businesses) on location, industry sector, and year of birth, classifying businesses by four industries: retail, services, and food; high-tech; producer services; and a broad knowledge-based category spanning information, finance, real estate, and management. The study calculates the proximity of startups at the block level at 0.25 and 0.5 mile increments from three types of transit: commuter rail, light rail, and heavy rail, in the census blocks for all counties in each Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) containing rail transit stations.

The study documents a close relationship between startups and transit, even though the average block in the study has residents with a fairly high level of car ownership (1.74 vehicles per household). The average block also shows relatively high levels of educational attainment among adults with 36 percent holding a college degree. This positive relationship exists “even while controlling for several forms of spatial dependence, total existing and new business activity in the block, and other socio-demographic factors,” the study notes.

Spatial Economics Analysis, 2018

But there are clear differences between the five cities, as the maps above show. Light rail systems are shown in red, heavy rail in purple, and commuter rail in green. (For example, Boston’s green line, which began life as an above-surface line is light rail; the rest of its T system, like many underground city systems, is heavy rail; and the MBTA’s broader regional train is commuter rail.) The dark blotches indicate expected startups per acre. You can see the clustering of startups around transit in Philadelphia and Boston for a simple reason: their more established transportation systems. After all, they are the two cities featured in urban historian Sam Bass Warner’s books on the rise of transit-served streetcar suburbs.

Historic, walkable land-use patterns that make everyday access to transit easier also may play a role,” the study notes. There is little overlap between transit and startups in Austin and Cleveland, nor in San Jose, where light rail runs at the outskirts of the major startup clusters.

There are myriad differences across the three main types of transit. Of the three, commuter rail is the most consistently associated with new startups, at about double the rate of both light rail and heavy rail. This may be due to differences in the sheer existence and widespread coverage of these three types of transit systems.

Generally speaking, commuter rail stations are the most extensive, with nearly ten percent of all blocks being within a half-mile of a station, compared to only five to six percent of blocks being near any rail stations. As the study notes, “by their nature as ‘commuter’ transit, these rail stations represent generally larger investments (in terms of size and design) and/or tend to be located in more desirable locations for business development, for example, suburban locations.”

The most interesting finding concerns the way different kinds of industries cluster around transit. It’s the least technologically intensive industries—retail, services, and food—that cluster the most around transit. That makes sense, since these businesses tend to locate in and around high-traffic locations to catch the eye of passersby and potential customers. Next in line are the broad knowledge businesses, high-technology, and then producer services. It’s not just high-tech startups that gravitate to transit, it’s all kinds of new businesses.

Ultimately, transit is more than just a mobility strategy, it is a stimulant for new business creation, job generation, and economic development as well.

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

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CityLab Daily: Could Public Banks Help Fund Affordable Housing?

What We’re Following

Bank shot: When cities collect tax revenue, they put it into commercial banks that then decide how to make that money grow. But what if cities could make those investments by themselves—in their own communities—and control the banks that manage their money? That’s the idea behind local public banks, and a bill in California proposes letting cities give it a try.

After a Los Angeles campaign pushed for public banking that would support cannabis businesses, a coalition of 10 cities adopted the idea with an emphasis on how it could fund efforts to address affordable housing, inequality, and climate change. “The city is identifying the needs for the community, and they’re turning to the bank to finance those needs,” says one of the legal architects of the legislation. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the story: Could Public Banks Help California Fund Affordable Housing?

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

We Were Promised Moon Cities

It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 put humans on the surface of the moon. Why didn’t we stay and build a more permanent lunar base? Lots of reasons.

David Montgomery

To Save a Neighborhood, Ban a Dollar Store?

Some local governments hope that more grocery stores will blossom in “food deserts” if the number of discount convenience retailers can be limited.

Emily Moon

In Denmark’s Train Dream, the Next Big City Is Only an Hour Away

A newly revived rail plan could see Denmark’s trains catch up with its reputation for other types of green transit.

Feargus O’Sullivan

What Happens to ‘Smart Cities’ When the Internet Dies?

In the fictional dystopia of Tim Maughan’s novel Infinite Detail, our dependence on urban technology has been suddenly severed.

Lee Gardner

A Clue to the Reason for Women’s Pervasive Car-Safety Problem

Crash-test dummies are typically models of an average man. Women are 73 percent more likely to be injured in a car accident. These things are probably connected.

Sarah Holder


Zoomed In

(Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

Maybe you’ve visited your local zoo a hundred times, but have you ever looked at the buildings instead of the animals? A new book by architecture professor Natascha Meuser chronicles zoo design and the institutions’ transformation from “a living collection of game trophies, to a museum of live exhibits, to a theme park with a moral mission.” The book explores the ever-shifting relationship between humans and wildlife, and the connection between zoo architecture and the natural environment. On CityLab: What Zoo Design Reveals About Human Attitudes to Nature


What We’re Reading

Climate mayors ask Congress for swifter transportation action (Curbed)

A brutal heat wave is descending on the U.S.—and blackouts may ensue (Slate)

Opioid deaths soared where pain pills flowed (Washington Post)

How public art has become a growth sector for architects (Places Journal)

Where Roe v. Wade has the biggest effect, mapped (New York Times)


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

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We Were Promised Moon Cities

When Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind on the moon’s surface 50 years ago this week, many people were already dreaming about staying.

Thinkers proposing moon cities ranged from author Arthur C. Clarke, who in 1954 envisioned igloo-shaped buildings on the moon’s surface powered by a nuclear reactor, to the participants in 1968’s Stanford-Ames Summer Faculty Workshop in Engineering Systems Design, who proposed a “Moonlab” that would begin as a three-person observatory before gradually expanding to include 24 people and extensive lunar farms. The pop culture of the Apollo era was full of moon settlements that we could expect by the 1990s: The one in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey boasted 1,100 residents and looked like the minimalist headquarters of a very well-funded interior design company.

But none of this came to pass. The last human set foot on the moon in 1972.

So what happened to the lunar colonies that seemed so imminent 50 years ago?

We’ve had other priorities

Many experts say there was nothing stopping humanity from following the Apollo missions with a permanent settlement. We had the technology to do it. But given the huge expense involved in such an endeavor, humans opted to spend limited resources solving (and, well, creating) problems here on Earth.

“The bottom line why we’re not there is there hasn’t been political will for it,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, a professor emerita of space law at the University of Mississippi.

James Head, a professor of geological science and planetology at Brown University who worked on the Apollo missions in the 1960s and 70s, recalled the social tumult at the time Americans were walking on the moon.

“I worked on Apollo by day, absolutely … but I also was almost every weekend down protesting the Vietnam War and witnessing race riots in Washington, D.C.,” Head said.

Astronaut Jim Irwin salutes beside the lunar lander and rover during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. (Corbis via Getty Images)

With all those competing domestic needs for both guns and butter, spaceships just seemed less important, especially once the Cold War reasons of national pride were over. The Apollo program wound down before establishing any sort of permanent presence beyond its “flag-and-footprints” visits, and America’s human spaceflight priorities shifted to low-Earth orbit with Skylab, the shuttle program, and the International Space Station.

A range of experts agreed that technology was never the primary obstacle to establishing a permanent presence on the moon after humans had proven the capability to travel there and back. Instead, it was a cost-benefit analysis that settling the moon didn’t have enough payoff for the cost.

“It’s kind of like asking, ‘Why don’t we have condos in Antarctica?’” said Darby Dyar, a professor of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College who has worked on lunar geology for decades. “We could get stuff there. We have the technology to build structures there. But it would be incredibly expensive to heat them. And why would anyone want to live there?”

Living there’s actually really hard

That’s not to say the technological challenges to lunar living are trivial. Staying on another planet for months or years is far more complex than visiting for a few days. The moon has no atmosphere and is bombarded by heavy doses of radiation and micrometeorites; its surface is covered with surprisingly problematic jagged moon dust and its gravity is one-sixth of that on Earth. Though humans have survived lengthy orbital stays, the effects of extended lunar living on the human body in particular haven’t been researched, especially the low gravity.

“The lunar environment is completely alien to what we experience on Earth,” said Haym Benaroya, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University.

Adding to those problems is the enormous expense and difficulty of getting to the moon in the first place. A permanent settlement would require repeated trips to bring supplies and shuttle residents. “Unlike the frequently used Christopher Columbus analogy, or other kind of exploration thing where people say, ‘You brought what you need on your back and you live off the land’—well, you can’t live off the land on the moon,” said Dyar.

There are solutions to all these problems, such as burying settlements under the lunar soil for protection against both radiation and meteors, or mining the frozen water at the lunar poles. And technology has advanced dramatically since the 1970s. Head, the Brown scientist, described one project he worked on that looked at how the Apollo missions could be recreated using modern technology.

“Carbon composites reduce mass significantly. Fuel cell technology has incredibly increased,” Head said. “Space suits are better. We found we could do a fairly inexpensive and very robust mission.”

NASA does have a scheme to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, but it’s expected to cost $20 to $30 billion, and its fate is extremely murky. Overcoming these obstacles still takes a lot of money and attention, which explains why political support for return visits to the moon in past decades has always evaporated.

It’s the economics, stupid

But what if lunar settlements could pay for themselves?

“The minute somebody learns how to make money by setting up a base on the moon, there will be a base on the moon,” said Ty Franck, a science fiction author who, with Daniel Abraham, co-wrote the popular The Expanse series of novels, set in a future where humanity has colonized the moon, Mars, and other parts of the solar system.

There are all sorts of ways a lunar settlement could make money. The moon could be mined for raw materials. Solar panels could gather abundant energy, unimpaired by an atmosphere, and beam it back to Earth. Ordinary people could fund a settlement through space tourism. A base on the moon could lower costs for other endeavors, including asteroid mining or trips to Mars.

But none of those are sure bets, which is partly why none of them have been tried.

“Based on the data we have at the present time, we do not have any evidence to say there are economically mineable deposits on the moon,” said Dyar, the specialist in lunar geology.

One possible exception is helium-3, an isotope that could be vital for nuclear fusion. It’s rare on Earth but might be abundant on the moon. Even that is speculative, however.

A 1995 artist’s rendering of a lunar base and mining facility. (NASA/SAIC/Pat Rawlings)

And the legalities of moon-mining are on very uncertain legal ground. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which every spacefaring nation is a party, guarantees the use of space for scientific research, but isn’t clear about commercial uses. Nation-states are forbidden from claiming territory on the moon, which would complicate digging up parts of it and selling it.

Gabrynowicz, the space law expert, said even a scientific outpost that wanted to dig up lunar ice for study will require an international agreement first. Anything for commercial purposes would be more controversial. Some nations, including the United States and Luxembourg, have passed national laws granting their citizens property rights over any materials extracted on celestial bodies, but these laws differ in important aspects and don’t form a universal framework for lunar mining.

Science fiction author Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, tackled these economic questions in his novel Artemis. His fictional lunar city had a tourism-based economy, which he estimated would be possible if advancements in space travel brought the cost of visiting the moon down to $70,000 per person—nearly an order of magnitude less expensive than today’s very limited selection of space-tourism experiences, but an improvement many believe is possible.

One reason many experts are optimistic is the new group of private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, which are developing new launch systems and have unveiled plans for sending explorers and settlers to other celestial bodies.

“Once the cost of sending people to the moon is driven down low enough that middle-class people can do it as a vacation, then we’ll have cities on the moon,” Weir wrote in an email to CityLab. “With companies like SpaceX and Boeing competing to drive down the cost of getting mass into orbit, the cost of spaceflight will go down and down.”

But moon cities will happen

Despite all the obstacles that have prevented lunar settlement in the half-century since Apollo, many experts believe the next 50 years will be more fruitful.

“I would think definitely by 2030 we’ll have astronauts on the moon—maybe not on a permanent basis, but cycling back and forth like we do with the space station,” said Benaroya.

David Warmflash, an astrobiologist and the author of a recent book about the moon, was less optimistic about the timeline but agreed some form of lunar settlement is likely in the future.

“If there was a public will to do it, the government wants to do it, industry wants to do it, and the people want to do it and aren’t going to vote out the politicians who say they want to do it, in under a decade we could have a really nice base on the moon,” he said.

A permanent settlement is not part of NASA’s current plan to return humans to the moon, but the space agency does want its next visit to establish a more-enduring foothold on the lunar surface. “While we hope to build a sustained human presence, we will have ongoing missions with crew rotations to bring our astronauts back to our home planet, Earth,” said Gina Anderson with NASA’s Office of Communications, in an email. “We have said we are ‘going to stay,’ and that means establishing scientific outposts similar to Antarctica or the International Space Station, where astronauts and robotic explorers can spend months living and working in ‘exploration zones’ with a mix of scientific interest and life-sustaining resources.”

Actual cities on the moon, with ordinary civilians living and working permanently, are likely much further in the future. Benaroya predicted they would happen—but not for a century or more.

Inflatable bases and lava tubes

When humans do eventually establish permanent lunar settlements, they’re not likely to look very much like Earth cities, because of the unique demands of the harsh environment. Human habitations will need serious radiation shielding as well as air, food, and water.

“The fact that there’s no atmosphere means we need to pressurize our structure like we do submarines so people can live inside without their spacesuits,” said Benaroya, who has studied the engineering of lunar settlement.

Initial bases are likely to be like the International Space Station: pressurized metal tubes or cylinders, on or under the moon’s surface. Inflatable bases could also be used to provide much larger interior areas, if the technology is ready in time, Benaroya said. Whichever approach is used, the structure will likely need to be mostly underground for protection.

A rendering of an inflatable lunar habitat from 1989. This 16-meter diameter structure has room for a dozen astronauts, plus a rover garage and a hydroponic garden. (NASA, Kitmacher, Ciccora artists)

Another potential for long-term settlement is to use some of the large lava tubes under the moon’s surface, as large as several hundred feet in diameter. Sealing off the mouths of those underground caves could provide ready-built protection from meteors and radiation. More tantalizingly, Warmflash said, lava tubes could be terraformed to create sealed Earthlike environments. (Some thinkers have proposed ways to make the moon’s surface itself livable, but if even possible, these would likely take centuries of expensive work to accomplish, including crashing comets into the moon’s surface.)

Socially, the first lunar settlements are likely to be hardscrabble scientific research stations, such as McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica. “In the beginning, it’s going to be almost exactly like Antarctica,” Warmflash said. “You’ve got people living indoors in an artificial environment where they’re almost totally dependent on technology, and they’ll rotate in or out every few weeks or months.”

But eventually, Head predicted, the experience of living short-term on the moon will help humans design the kind of homes and cities needed for more permanent lunar residency. And when they do, things will get interesting.

Who gets to be the Moon Mayor?

A host of political and legal questions will emerge during this process. Initial bases may be administered by national governments back in Earth—or, in a more commercial future, by corporations—but permanent residents will certainly develop their own independent allegiances, especially once moon-babies are born and born and raised off-Earth. Historically, remote settlements tended to grow independent from their countries of origin as they grew more self-sufficient and generations passed. Gabrynowicz expected that will “happen in space, too.”

“If you have a number of generations of people who are born on the moon or on Mars, they will at some point think of the Earth as that place where their ancestors came from, but they themselves are not Earthlings, because they themselves did not come from there,” she said.

This question of political independence will likely be complicated. “I suspect that’s going to be going on for a while,” said Abraham, the science fiction author. “Even if there is a separate culture, even if there is a separate sense of identity, the economic and political powers that delineate political governance, those are hard to shrug off.”

Maybe we should worry about Earth cities, too

During the Apollo program, racing the Soviets to the moon was a motivated in large part by the political rivalry between those two superpowers. A half-century later, the players in that drama have changed dramatically, and humanity’s home planet faces a host of life-threatening human-caused challenges. But Head argues that space exploration and settlement can still provide meaning and inspiration on both the individual and national level.

“Human imagination and the spirit of exploration is something that really needs to be cultivated and encouraged,” he said.

Given the range of threats to human civilization, from climate change and nuclear weapons to asteroid strikes or a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, many believe that humans need to eventually become “a multi-planet species” in order to survive. That’s also a theme echoed by the tech entrepreneurs funding private spaceflight efforts.

“If we only stay on this planet, we’re going to go extinct in geologically a short period of time,” said Warmflash. “We’re not really good at thinking over long periods of time as humans. Even if we look at the time scale of since the emergence of civilization … a lot can happen in several thousand years.”

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