Why Boulder Blocked Electric Scooters

BOULDER, CO—When micro-mobility companies dumped hundreds of scooters and e-bikes in cities around the country seemingly overnight, city officials in Boulder, Colorado, watched warily, expecting their famously bike-friendly city to be a target.

In nearby Denver, for example, city officials swiftly ordered Lime and Bird scooters off the streets after hundreds of the tiny shared vehicles showed up last year. Then they crafted a series of regulations determining where and how the scooters could be used, parked, and collected. “The experience from the other cities where companies just dumped e-scooters overnight—we didn’t want to be faced with that dilemma,” said Dave “DK” Kemp, Boulder’s senior transportation planner. “We’ve seen the horror stories, and we’ve seen the success stories too.”

So when the state passed legislation in May, 2019 that gave e-scooters permission to ride on the streets (removing them from the “toy vehicle” category), Kemp and others in Boulder leaped into action. Although commercial scooters weren’t yet operating in the city, the city council passed an emergency ordinance the same day that banned the issuance of commercial scooter permits within city limits. Over the next several months, the city will host a series of public forums to determine how, and if, commercial scooter-sharing should be allowed.

“To do it right, you really have to make sure your community is on board to be able to address potential problems,” Kemp said. “Because we know there are some.”

A slew of scooter companies have all expressed interest in entering Boulder. And no wonder—this is one of the bike-friendliest cities in North America. Within and immediately surrounding the city are more than 300 miles of bikeway, including 96 miles of bike lanes, 84 miles of multiuse paths, and 50 miles of designated bike routes. Within the city itself, on-street bike lanes, contra-flow bike lanes, designated bike routes, paved shoulders, multi-use paths and soft-surface paths all make up one of the most comprehensive urban bike networks in the U.S.

“We’ve been working with a number of e-bikes and scooter companies,” Mary Ann Mahoney, the CEO of the Boulder Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, told CityLab. “We have a (dockless e-bike) pilot starting in the fall, to see how it’ll work.”

But Boulder has been notably slow to embrace the charms of e-scooters. The resistance might look incongruous, given the outdoorsy Colorado town’s enthusiasm for other two-wheeled conveyances. But the region’s large and influential cyclist community has been less-than-enthusiastic about welcoming battery-powered interlopers: Legislation that gives scooters the same rights as bicycles is something that cycling advocates here say should be approached carefully, from a policy standpoint.

“I think the scooter industry, this year was their year to update definitions of vehicle codes related to their products. In other words, there’s really no legal standing for electric scooters, so they basically went state by state—30 to 35 different states—where they updated the definition of an electric scooter so that they basically have the same rights to the road as a bicycle,” Morgan Lommele, director of state and local policy for the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association and the People For Bikes Coalition, which is based in Boulder but didn’t work on the Boulder bill. “What that really means is, e-scooters, unless banned from infrastructure, would be allowed wherever bikes would be allowed.”

In the broader conversation of mobility, the general camps are often divided between private cars and everything else. But in Boulder, lines are often drawn between people-powered modes, like walking and cycling, and motorized ones, which includes not only cars but also e-bikes and e-scooters.

“There are two ways to think about it,” Lommele said. “One way is human-powered, active mobility: so bicycles, walking, running, and even pedal-powered e-bikes. That would exclude electric scooters, because if you’ve been on one, you know you’re not really moving your body and getting exercise. The other way to look at it is ‘anything but a car’—any micromobility to get around, or any alternative transit, which would encompass buses, e-scooters, and bikes.”

In many cities, scooters are currently operating in something of a grey zone—often tolerated on sidewalks among pedestrians, as well as in bike lanes with traditional pedal bicycles. “The bike industry in general is kind of opposed to this blanket idea that scooters would be allowed wherever bikes would be allowed,” Lommele said. “Our position is, it needs to be a little more thoughtful than that.”

In places like Boulder, with its extensive network of on- and off-street bike trails that are heavily used by avid cyclists, adding motorized scooters to the mix might be problematic. “For a city that has the best bike infrastructure for transportation and recreation in the country, I think they’re really, really cautious about the scooters, because there are a lot of old-guard Boulderites who want Boulder the way it used to be, and that did not include scooters,” Lommele said. “They’re worried about the safety implications, and I think that’s a valid conversation to have.”

In Boulder, environmental concerns are also on par with issues of safety, planning, and permissions. While scooter companies often claim that their service offers a more greener alternative to driving, recent studies on their environmental impact are mixed. Not only are the vehicles themselves notably short-lived, thanks to vandalism, but in cities like Denver they’re driven around and collected each night, possibly offsetting claims of saved vehicle emissions.

“The general environmental concern here is much higher than in other places, and I can see some benefits of not having scooters everywhere,” Eric Budd, a local cyclist and board member of Boulder Progressives, which advocates for housing, transportation and climate initiatives, told CityLab. “The idea of these things on publicly owned land is anathema. We have a clean and well-managed city, and people don’t want to see scooters defacing public space and to have companies making a profit off of it.”

If 2018 was the year the scooter companies simply unleashed their products onto the streets of cities, unbidden, 2019 is the year that cities struck back with regulations that sought to bring scooters back under control. Cities like Nashville and Atlanta have banned commercial scooter-sharing services after complaints; other major potential markets, such as Boston, Seattle, and New York City, have never allowed them. And many others are closely monitoring pilot programs. Denver’s Dockless Mobility Pilot Permit Program was set to expire in July, but was recently extended. In the meanwhile, to align more closely with state law, the Denver Department of Public Works recommended to Denver City Council that based on observed rider behavior and resident feedback, electric scooters should be prohibited on sidewalks. “With the change approved in late August,” a Denver DPW statement said, “people on scooters now follow the same rules as people on bikes and electric bikes and should ride in the street and in bike lanes.”

It’s difficult to say whether scooters will eventually find their way to Boulder when the moratorium expires. “It depends on whether electric scooters are a trend or here to stay,” Lommele said. “If they’re a trend, [scooter companies] might just drop Boulder as a priority area. If they’re here to stay, I bet Boulder will try to find a way for people to ride them on city bike paths.”

For now, the city is content to sit out the micromobility revolution.

Kemp says that the community forums on scooters will allow the city to be deliberate in the nuances of adopting the new devices. “So often, innovation is about ‘let’s try it and see,’” he said. “And I look at innovation as being proactive and ‘let’s do this right.’”

Others aren’t convinced time will solve this debate.

“If I had to bet, given the current state of Scooterville,” Budd said, “in a year from now, we still won’t have scooters.”

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East Harlem Hasn’t Gotten Its Subway Yet, But It Is Getting Vibrant Art

Park Avenue at 125th street in Harlem isn’t posh, it’s a challenge. Clients of the neighborhood’s many substance abuse clinics loiter under the overpass between the two sides of the avenue. Garbage is scattered around construction fencing and vacant lots, and the pavement smells of urine in spots. Travelers moving between the 125th Street Metro North commuter rail station and the 4-5-6 Lexington Avenue subway stop don’t often stick around. But on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the community stepped out of the shadows to shine.

On September 7, around 30 artists gathered as part of a project to paint more than 1,500 feet of plywood green construction panels along 125th and 124th Streets. The Uptown GrandScale Mural Project aims to use public art to address blight in the neighborhood and provide opportunities for uptown artists to showcase their work.

“We’re doing the best we can to showcase that there is a strong culture and strong values here,” said Carey King, neighborhood resident and executive director of Uptown Grand Central, which coordinated the project. “When people currently come to this area of Harlem, we hear that it’s derelict. People ask, ‘Why are all these people poor and on drugs?’ With the mural project we’re trying to say, ‘Yes that’s what you may see when you come here, but there is a very important history and a deep and rich culture here.’”

A view of the east side of Park Avenue and 125th Street with artists at work, taken from the underpass in the center of Park Avenue. (Rebecca Bellan)

Much of the construction fencing in the neighborhood has been there for as long as many residents can remember, and will likely remain for a while yet. The Durst Organization bought the sites on the west and east sides of Park Avenue at 125th in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but they have yet to file any building permits, likely due to the city’s plans to extend the Second Avenue subway to East Harlem by 2029.

The NYC Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s environmental statement lists lots in the middle of the two sites as “potential property acquisitions” needed to complete the second phase of the subway extension. While part of the long-promised subway extension opened to much fanfare in 2017, it only extended to the Upper East Side. The city is asking the federal government for $2 billion of the $6 billion it has estimated is required to finish the extension to 125th street. Sections of the line were built in the 1970s, but by the mid-1970s the work was halted due to a municipal fiscal crisis. And to the Harlemites and commuters who look at boarded-up blocks daily with no construction in sight, the corners of Park Avenue look like blight, rather than the future.

Living near abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and substandard housing is associated with violence, higher rates of chronic illness, stunted brain and physical development in children, mass retreat into unhealthy eating and exercise habits, and a breakdown of social networks and capital, according to a 2017 Urban Institute study.

The first section of murals was completed in August by artist Gera Lozano. (Rebecca Bellan)

Public art, on the other hand, has the ability to positively affect public health, both mental and physical. It has the ability to decrease stress and help develop a shared identity and a sense of ownership. In low-income neighborhoods, the presence of cultural resources like public arts projects is associated with a 14 percent decrease in cases of child abuse and neglect, a 5 percent decrease in obesity, and an 18 percent decrease in crime.

In 2015, Uptown Grand Central, the six-year-old nonprofit that has become a champion for the 125th Street-Metro North corridor, adopted the space underneath the Metro North tracks as a community plaza, cleaning it up and running weekly farmer’s markets, pop-up shops, live music, free zumba classes, and other community-driven events. That makeshift plaza has recently been closed for construction, but, undeterred, Uptown Grand Central has shifted its operations across the street to the southwestern corner of Park Avenue and 125th Street, where the panels of public murals begin. The first section of murals was completed in August by artist Gera Lozano, and the project continues on Sept 14 and 22, culminating in the third annual ‘Party on Park’ street festival that will shut down Park Avenue from 116th to 125th Streets.

“We’re hoping that when people start to see the energy going into this community, it’ll start to attract the investment and policy that it needs to really shine,” said King.

Creating art in public spaces in New York City is a complicated endeavor. Last year, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs announced the City Canvas program, a two-year pilot that allows two cultural nonprofits to commission and install artwork on construction structures like fences and sidewalk sheds. But the city offered no funding for the City Canvas project—only the assurance that those who wanted to beautify their neighborhoods by transforming ugly construction structures will not receive a fine.

Uptown Grand Central’s project isn’t part of this program. While the artists are technically performing an illegal act by painting on construction fencing, Uptown Grand Central approached the Durst Organization, which said it would pay any fines that the Department of Buildings issued, and the project has the support of the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, King said.

“We’re taught that art is something that lives in museums, and there aren’t living people doing it,” said Ayana Hosten, project coordinator for the Uptown GrandScale project. “So walking down the street, especially as a young person, and seeing someone who might even look like you painting, taking something out of their everyday life and transforming it—who knows what the impact of that is? That could trickle into what you feel about your own ownership of a public space, what the city owes to you, and what you contribute to the city, as well.”

The daughter of local business owner Dale Cole was one of many children taking chalk to the sidewalk and zipping happily around the artists while a DJ spun tunes, pedestrians stopped to chat with artists, and ladies sold coquitos (flavored ices).

“Just look at the vibrance here,” said Cole, owner of Daps Eats, a Jamaican restaurant. “It is improving the neighborhood. You don’t want to walk on the other side of the street. Everyone is passing here. It does bring energy to East Harlem. I love it.”

Artist SFA works on his mural. (Rebecca Bellan)

The artists involved are either from Harlem or have a connection to the neighborhood, Hosten says, and they’re conscious of making sure their art is at once a form of their own self-expression and a representation of the neighborhood.

“We’re not gonna solve all the issues on 125th Street, but art plays a role,” said Hosten. “It establishes a sense of pride and it also makes you happy when you’re walking down the street. Instead of a big green wall there’s a bright yellow sun and rays. I also think providing opportunities for artists uptown, especially artists of color, is incredibly important.”

Lola Lovenotes of the Bronx painted an Afro-Latina woman on a panel at the corner of 124th Street. “The neighborhood is mostly black, so I want to connect with the hood if I’m going to paint it,” she said. “I want to incorporate African artwork and Taino symbolism. I love occult symbols and the mystical world, so I’m including some African symbols that promote strength and protection. It’s an underprivileged neighborhood so it’s good to have uplifting images.”

On 125th, the art duo Lost Breed Culture painted a Louis Armstrong mural. “We really appreciate the connection between art and music,” said Fausto Manuel Ramos of Lost Breed. “Painting Armstrong is a nice way to pay homage to the music that was so important here in Harlem.”

“Painting amongst the public is a good day to begin with because you get to interact,” said Murjani Holmes, who painted a colorful art deco-style woman. “You hear the people say, ‘Thank you so much, you’re doing so well.’ I’m loving it, too. It’s not raining, it’s a beautiful day.”

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CityLab Daily: The Art of Cleaning Up City Hall

What We’re Following

A clean break: Racketeering. Graft. Embezzlement. Bribes. Perhaps one of the most colorful qualities of city politics is the notorious and chronic issue of civic corruption. It’s a story that has defined eras of cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, Chicago, and Providence, and it can leave locals weary from national embarrassment and seeing history repeat itself.

Leading a wave of reform can be a tall order. First come the attempts to oust politicians and root out the sources of controversy in the first place. Then there’s the murky work of overhauling city charters, rewriting ethics laws, launching probes, and challenging entrenched political traditions. “As long as you have human beings in government, you’re not going to be able to root [corruption] out entirely,” one political scientist tells CityLab. But voters and officials have certainly tried, and some have even gotten good results. Today on CityLab: The Art of Cleaning Up City Hall

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Question the Presidential Candidates Don’t Get Asked

Affordable housing is an urgent crisis, and 11 candidates have presented plans for solving it. But you wouldn’t know this by watching the TV debates.

Diane Yentel

Don’t Move People Out of Distressed Places. Instead, Revitalize Them

A new study shows that place-based policies are key to helping people in distressed cities, where investments should be tailored to local economic conditions.

Richard Florida

How Much Bigger Are Homes in the U.S. Than in the Rest of the World?

The U.S. is in the top tier of house sizes internationally—and it’s not just because of McMansions.

Joe Pinsker

My International Love Story, in Three Maps

My relationship has unfolded across three cities. But now my boyfriend and I are heading into uncharted territory.

Thomas Dai

Bike-Dominated Amsterdam Is Not a Walker’s Paradise

As Amsterdammers jostle for space, the city government is trying to ease conflicts between those on bikes and on foot.

Sophie Knight

D’oh! Not Disturb

(James Collier)

Tired of waiting for the city to fix their street, New Orleans residents furnished a pothole and offered it up for rent on Airbnb. The listing for “Homer’s Hideout” boasted “open air living, with the comforts of rural camping—including a few early-morning yelps from local coyotes.” The listing lasted for three weeks, until a crew of city workers finally showed up to fix the street. “This was just about being a squeaky wheel,” the listing’s creator said. CityLab’s Laura Bliss has the story: Here’s a Pothole Stunt for the Ages in New Orleans

What We’re Reading

How climate change in Iowa is changing presidential politics (TIME)

PG&E agrees to pay $11 billion insurance settlement over California wildfires (NPR)

One in four of New York’s new luxury apartments are unsold (New York Times)

Philly blesses worshipers with free parking, eliciting cyclists’ Old Testament wrath (Philadelphia Inquirer)

The changing face of school integration (Washington Post)

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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The Question the Presidential Candidates Don’t Get Asked

Last night, ten Democratic presidential hopefuls debated their plans for America’s future—with barely a mention of an issue at the top of many voters’ minds: the nation’s severe shortage of affordable homes.

The United States is in the grips of a severe and pervasive housing crisis, one that is hitting rural, urban, and suburban communities alike. Nationally, there is a shortage of 7 million homes affordable and available to the lowest-income renters. Rents have risen faster than renters’ incomes over the last two decades, and while more people are renting than ever, the supply of apartments they can afford has lagged. Fewer than four affordable and available rental homes exist for every 10 of the lowest-income renter households nationwide; people of color are disproportionately impacted. Meanwhile, policy makers have disinvested in the nation’s public housing infrastructure, leaving families living in unsafe, unhealthy, and unacceptable conditions. Racial segregation persists, and concentrated poverty is growing.

And after almost a decade of decline, homelessness is back on the rise, and in the news. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signaled his administration’s intentions to address California’s homeless crisis in harmful, unjust, and unlawful ways: criminalization, sweeps of unsheltered people living on the streets, and potentially moving them to federal homeless camps. In a week when affordable housing and homelessness was on the front page of newspapers across the country, it is astonishing that the debate moderators neglected to ask any candidates for their solutions to the crisis.

The issue’s absence on the debate stage was particularly glaring given its paramount importance to voters. According to a recent national public opinion poll, 60 percent of people in America say housing affordability is a serious problem where they live—that’s up an astounding 21 points from 2016. More than 60 percent have made at least one sacrifice in the past three years, cutting back on food, healthcare, or learning activities for their children, to make rent.

The public is demanding solutions. Eighty-five percent of people in America believe ensuring everyone has a safe, accessible and affordable home should be a top national priority, and 8 in 10 voters want major action from Congress and the White House. There’s some rare bipartisan agreement around the urgency of this issue: Candidates with a detailed plan to make housing more affordable are more likely to garner support at the polls from Democrats (91 percent), Independents (70 percent) and Republicans (63 percent).

We can end homelessness and housing poverty. We lack only the political will to fund solutions at the scale necessary. While housing challenges differ in different communities, four sets of federal solutions are universally needed.

First, produce and preserve. We must build deeply affordable homes by expanding the national Housing Trust Fund (HTF) and preserve our nation’s public housing infrastructure by investing in needed repairs. The private sector must build more market-rate apartments; the federal government can help by requiring local governments to eliminate restrictive zoning policies and making zoning improvements a condition to receive federal transportation, infrastructure or housing dollars.

Next, we must bridge the growing gap between wages and housing costs by greatly expanding rental assistance. Since 1960, renters’ incomes have increased by 5 percent, while their housing costs have increased 61 percent. Meanwhile, only one in four families receives the housing assistance it needs due to chronic underfunding. Third, we can prevent homelessness with resources to help families absorb a one-time financial shock and avoid eviction and the spiraling into poverty—with all its associated costs—that results. Finally, we must protect renters against arbitrary evictions, rent hikes and discrimination.

So far, 11 presidential candidates have put forward housing plans or proposals that include some or all of these solutions. After decades of federal disinvestment, it’s remarkable to have candidates using their platforms to elevate the housing crisis and advance solutions of a size and scope not seen in generations. In these first early months of the 2020 election season, we’ve seen more sustained attention on affordable housing policy than we have in entire presidential campaigns in history.

Voters are eager to hear the candidates talk about how to make homes affordable and accessible to the tens of millions of people in America who are struggling to keep roofs over their heads, or who have no homes at all. But, once again, last night’s debate moderators chose not to ask them: What’s your plan to end the nation’s housing crisis?

Nothing is more central to our lives than our home. When we are affordably housed, we are healthier, our children do better in school, we earn more over our lifetimes, we even live longer. Voters must continue to urge candidates to talk about the housing crisis, to ask questions on the campaign trail, to push for ambitious solutions, and to hold candidates accountable. If debate moderators won’t ask candidates the housing question, we will. Because affordable homes—and the political will to produce them—are built with ballots.

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My International Love Story, in Three Maps

For Liam’s last birthday, I got him three maps—one for each of the three cities where we’ve lived as a couple. I bought the templates for these maps on Etsy, printing them off at Walgreens and mounting them on our kitchen wall in flimsy, black frames. Read left to right like a geographic sentence, the maps show better than any photo album or stack of correspondence how our relationship has developed across time and space.

Now, ever since Liam told me he was leaving, I catch myself staring at the maps at least once a day, as if these representations of where we have been can help me navigate to wherever it is we are going.

The first city is Tucson, where we met while enrolled at the local university. More accurately, we met on Tinder—a virtual map on which profiled selves, each having ceded their location to the map, try brokering linkages with one another. Liam liked the fact that most of my photos on Tinder showed me enjoying the great outdoors. I liked the economy of our messaging: Hi. How are you? Let’s meet here. Ok.

Tucson was built in a desert, bracketed by mountains on all sides. It boasts one busy road named Speedway, another named Congress, and a mall in the foothills called La Encantada where you went when your iPhone was broken. Around the time we met, the students in my writing classes were all obsessed with a song called “Closer” by the Chainsmokers which name-drops Tucson in its second verse. The song could be heard at all hours near campus, pulsing from the broad verandas of the frat houses at night and heralding each class change on the artificially green quad. Liam and I would smirk at each other whenever we heard the song, though I’m pretty sure we both knew the words by heart.

(Courtesy of EarthSquared)

Most of my memories of Tucson take place at night, when the western sky had just ceased its color show and hundreds of stars were condensing into sight above (for astronomical purposes, Tucson has very strict rules about light pollution). Our courtship also took place in the quasi-dark. We met often at a video rental palace that had managed to outlive Blockbuster by carrying hard-to-find films from niche international directors. Most of the movies I chose came from China, where my parents were born. I was contemplating moving there after graduation, and screening these films with Liam was my arty way of inviting him along. All spring, we sat in his apartment watching Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, or Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, or Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

When summer came at last, I moved to a city in central China, and Liam soon followed.

The second city is Chengdu, which was built on a wide and fertile plain. If our first city looked like a grid when viewed from above, our second looked like a series of concentric circles, each called a ring road. More people live inside these circles than in all five of New York’s boroughs. Yet when we talked about Chengdu to people back home, we described it as “medium-sized by Chinese standards” and “laid-back,” with a thriving underground culture of dance clubs and artist collectives.

(Courtesy of EarthSquared)

In the second city, we said “I love you” and “wo ai ni” to each other constantly. The words were new so we said them pressed against each other on the metro during rush hour or while placing tender cuts of meat in each other’s bowls at hot pot. For a year, we loved each other in a two-story, $500 apartment with terrible rose-print wallpaper upstairs, and we loved each other in 7-Eleven at midnight, dancing in the aisles with Magnum ice cream bars in our hands, and we loved each other outside, on the street, watching golden leaves flake from the gingko trees. Because this was China, we often had to love each other through our face masks (the air quality was quite poor that year), which is to say we loved each other in unfair weather, in a city where the sun rarely shone.

The differences between us also grew more apparent. Liam had never been outside the U.S. until he met me, whereas I had been visiting China to see relatives for years. At times I felt like Liam’s Mandarin mouthpiece, a translation app through which he ordered meals and directed cab drivers. I resented this asymmetry even as I enjoyed the cachet Liam’s whiteness occasionally bestowed on me—how eyes would follow us curiously across every crowded room, how random strangers sometimes complimented me on my green-eyed, curly-haired “friend.”

In the end, even I wasn’t vindictive enough to hold my boyfriend moving across an ocean against him. I had chosen a place far away and he had met me there, exporting himself into my geographically bipolar life.

The third city is Providence, Rhode Island, where we’ve lived for a year now, trudging up and down College Hill and listening to the squirrel traffic across our roof. My desire for a Ph.D brought us here, and will hold me glued to this place for years to come. Once more, we live by a university, listening to the songs which carry across the quad. Every weekday, I walk in one direction to class, and Liam drives in the other for work. The building we live in is shorter and draftier than any we’ve occupied before. “It used to be a nunnery,” our landlady told us when we moved in, and so we pad about its floors wearing only our underwear, calling each other sister.

Courtesy of EarthSquared)

But a few months from now, Liam will get on a plane and I will not. I helped him find this exit: He wanted to move abroad again, so I edited all his application materials for the Peace Corps and celebrated with him when he received a posting to Nepal. There was no question about whether or not he was going. A child of the West, Liam wasn’t happy living on the East Coast, where his commute ate two hours of each day and the mountains were, by his estimate, mere hills.  

Now that the abstract idea of his departure has a name—Nepal—and even a date—January 2020—attached to it, I have a lot of questions, none of which should surprise anyone who has stared down the barrel of a long-distance romance. Should we stay together? Should we break up? Should we stay together but quietly sleep with other people? Should we sleep with other people but tell each other all about it, giggling on the phone in our separate time zones?

He will learn to inhabit the place he is going in intimate ways only he can know, and I will stay here, buried beneath my books, surveying our past cartographies. My friends want to know if I’ve ironed out a plan for what is to come, but how do you draw a map for a landscape you haven’t yet crossed? How do you make up a legend or fix a compass rose to a love happening in two places at once?       

Liam and I have slid into the assumption that we will try to make it work, in whatever configurations present themselves during his 27 months abroad. We will communicate about every new configuration, be open but not too open about our desires and our jealousies, and maybe even enjoy this spell of time apart while it lasts. I think of this as an honest, sensible approach most days, but then there are other days when I wake up beside him in our bed and consider issuing brash ultimatums: this place or that one; take me or leave me.

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes in his 1974 study Topophilia that a person’s environment is not just a “resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to,” but also a network by which they find “profound attachment and love.” I learned to love Liam by learning to love the three cities on my wall. Our love would be a shapeless, intangible thing if it weren’t for those places and all the distance we’ve traveled to live inside their lines. The cities triangulate us, locating who we have been to each other even as they leave room at their edges for all that is unknowable—those blank spaces that mapmakers refer to as “sleeping beauties.”

I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t fear the slumbering potential of that blankness, the vertigo of falling off all our maps. But there’s also an excitement in knowing we won’t be stalled here, bound to this hilly city by the sea. If I hope for anything, it’s that Liam looks at the maps on the wall as much as I do and that he commits to memory all the ways we’ve come and gone. Maybe, in the future, they’ll help him find his way back.  

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Un-Corrupting City Hall

H. Philip West Jr. breathed a sigh of relief in June when Providence’s 294-room Graduate Hotel decided to . “She’s supposed to be independent but at the same time there’s a certain amount of allegiance to city government, to make sure city government comes out looking good.”

Mogk said creating an inspector general’s office in the wake of Kilpatrick’s corrupt tear was the right move. “I think putting a strong provision with respect to investigating unethical and illegal activities of an elected official is about as strong as it can get.”

But this will be a key test for its effectiveness, he said—and a challenge for Ha personally, given her ties: “I think that the inspector general will have to be courageous to essentially conduct this investigation fully, in light of local politics.”

Greater Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Times found out about the devastating looting of the City of Bell, a small Los Angeles county suburb, by accident. Two reporters, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, had been looking into curiously high city employee salaries in neighboring Maywood, but reached out to Bell after Maywood laid off its city employees and outsourced administration to its suburban neighbor.

The Times “called Bell to compare some things, and then got some fishy answers,” says Doug Willmore, a city manager who was brought in to fix up Bell in the aftermath. “For Jeff Gottlieb, his BS meter went off—he was like gee, something’s fishy here. Without him doing a story on another city, who knows how long this thing would have gone on?”

What the paper and, ultimately, prosecutors, uncovered: Serving a city of some 36,000 people, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo had seen his salary balloon from $72,000 when he was hired in 1993 to nearly $800,000 by 2010, with a combined benefits package of about $1.5 million (plus about in 2016, after Beaumont’s scandal broke. But it can be grueling work, then-Mayor (now Vice Mayor) Alicia Romero explained to the paper: “It’s sort of like a trauma victim in the ER. Basically, you have to stop the bleeding, then do the surgery, and then do the physical therapy.”

New Orleans

In Louisiana, colorful-but- noted, “neither press nor public ever seemed able to look away, nor to hold anything against him for very long.” Cianci was re-elected in 1990, served for (nearly) three more terms, and earned widespread support for helping revitalize the city’s downtown waterfront.

Ex-Mayor Buddy Cianci signs a copy of his autobiography, “Politics and Pasta: A Memoir,” to a well-wisher in Rhode Island in 2014. (Steven Senne/AP)

Then came Operation Plunder Dome. Federal investigators raided City Hall, and in 2001 charged him and eight others for taking $1.5 million combined in bribes on city contracts, jobs, leases, tax breaks and more. He faced 27 charges, but was ultimately convicted of a sole count of racketeering conspiracy, enough for 64 months in jail.

The longtime mayor was out, but the city remained mired in pay-for-play-practices. His successor, David Cicilline (now a U.S. congressman), took the first stab at shifting the political culture in City Hall, appointing a commission to draft Providence’s first-ever ethics code for city employees, complete with a municipal integrity officer post with investigatory powers.

West, who served on the commission and worked closely with Cicilline on the effort, said the goal was to impose a new rule of law: “First you make the bad behavior illegal… Then, you have to create an enforcement agency that’s capable of following up on it.”

Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that easy. City Council members dragged their feet on enacting the reforms, in part due to concerns a mayor-appointed ethics investigator could be misused as a political tool against others. The position was eventually created, but with weaker powers than West envisioned. The sluggish movement was rooted in fear from council members, he says. “There was real resistance, even among people who were not heavily tarred.”

The Providence Ethics Commission didn’t actually meet until 2015, two mayoral administrations removed from Cicilline’s. West said he’s proud of the ethics code and other reforms he helped with, but is bothered that he hasn’t yet seen the commission enforce the new rules for any violations. “With a power, you can’t really know what it is until you exercise it and you find out what the resistance is. I really can’t say that they’ve got decent enforcement power until I see that they’re using it.”

Several years after Cianci went down, political reformers, observers and journalists said the city’s political culture had improved. “I do not detect any feeling any longer that you have to pay people off in City Hall to get things done,” now-retired Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst told the Brown Daily Herald in 2006.

But Providence has struggled to shed its image: There was renewed attention to the Cianci era during the 2016 season of the podcast Crimetown, plus more recent scandals like those of now-former Council President Luis Aponte and Councilman Kevin Jackson for campaign finance violations and embezzlement. (Jackson was overwhelmingly recalled by voters as a result.)

And beyond those now-banished portraits, other remnants of the Cianci era remain in Providence, West notes: Some current city bureaucrats linked to the Plunder Dome saga remain in their positions.

“It takes a long time to build good government, and sadly, a clever, corrupt official can do great damage in short time,” he says. “Until those people retire and are gone, corruption will still have its presence, its taint.”

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Helping Distressed Places Is Better Than Helping People Leave Them

America’s growing geographic divide is causing experts and policy-makers to revisit one of the most fundamental policy questions:  When it comes to healing distressed places, should we favor people-based policies that essentially help residents relocate to more vibrant areas, or should we favor place-based policies that focus on rebuilding the economies of distressed places and creating new and better jobs for people where they already live?

Economists have long come down on the side of people-oriented policies that essentially bring people to jobs.

The pioneering research by Raj Chetty and his collaborators, which documents the often substantial differences in economic opportunity that come from being born in particular places, suggests there is much to be gained from helping families, especially those with young children, move from distressed places with limited opportunity to more vibrant ones with better schools, amenities, job markets, and public services. University of California, Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti has documented the costs of land-use restrictions that drive up the cost of housing and hinder workers in distressed areas from moving to more dynamic coastal superstar cities and tech hubs.

Now, new research from economist Timothy Bartik of the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research makes a strong and convincing case for the efficacy of place-based policies; policies that essentially bring jobs to people, in bolstering the economies of distressed places, and helping workers and their families get a leg up where they live. Targeting places can sometimes be the best way to help people.

Most economists see clear economic gains (or “efficiencies”) from policies that directly focus on people, creating supports or incentives to relocate from more distressed to more vibrant places with more and better economic opportunity. But Bartik believes this case is somewhat overdrawn. In contrast to the broader economic consensus, he sees considerable gains from helping to boost the job markets of distressed places, thereby enabling the people who live there to find more and better jobs and thrive where they are. What’s more, he argues that current place-based policies are wrongly focused on luring large firms through tax incentives and must be retooled so that they actually helped distressed communities and the people who live in them.

For one, Bartik argues many people simply do not want to move, even if they can afford to. He quotes Adam Smith as saying: “A man is of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported.” Efforts to move people to jobs will likely only work for a subset of those who live in distressed places. Bartik points out that roughly 70 percent of Americans stay in the same state they were born, and more than half of all Americans and 40 percent of more mobile college grads stay in the same metro area.

There are significant economic and social gains to people staying in place. Moving is hard on people, especially children. Losing proximity to friends and family takes its toll on well-being and life-satisfaction. Anyone who has moved a lot (like me) knows that the communities we live in, and in which we forge social and business ties, create a special kind of location-specific capital that is very hard to replicate in a new place. A wide body of research, some of which I have covered here, shows that the opportunity and psychological costs of moving are substantial, with estimates in excess of $100,000 for every close family member or friend left behind, and typically in excess of a year of income.

Furthermore, policies which subsidize moving tend to have few takers. Bartik cites research which shows that out-migration subsidies typically increase out-migration rates by no more than 2 percentage points. And encouraging even more people to move to superstar cities may only exacerbate the winner-take-all housing affordability crisis we are already experiencing right now.

Helping people to move to jobs might seem like a good way to recalibrate the local job market, reducing the population to fit available jobs, but, as Bartik aptly point out, it misses the simple fact that a place that loses people also loses economic demand. When people move away, they no longer buy things, invest in housing, pay for rent or other goods or services, creating a big hit to local demand. Out-migration also decreases property values, which will further depress local demand. As a result, when people leave a depressed local economy, jobs fall in more or less equal proportion. All of this reduces the community’s tax base and ability to deliver necessary public services. The people-to-jobs approach does nothing to help those who are left behind.

In these ways, policies that encourage people to leave may ultimately end up making distressed communities even worse off. “Encouraging people to leave a distressed place thus does not make it easier for those staying behind to find jobs,” is how Bartik puts it.

On the flip side, there are considerable benefits to place-based policies which bring jobs to people.

While many economists argue that enabling more people to move to dynamic coastal cities will improve productivity and grow the economy overall, Bartik contends there may be even greater benefits to helping people stay in place and instead growing jobs in these distressed places. Indeed, creating jobs in distressed places has an outsized effect on employment to population ratios (employment rates). When jobs are added to distressed communities, the growth in employment rates is 60 to 90 percent higher than in other places, an effect that persists for decades. “For every 100 new jobs, about 23 contribute to raising the employment rate in an average place, but 40 do so in a distressed place,” Bartik writes. “The additional jobs created in distressed places draw people into productive employment, raising the overall effective national labor supply and economic output.”

For these reasons, he adds: “A good job in one’s home community therefore can be more valuable than a good job somewhere else.” The problem is that current place-based policies are overwhelmingly dominated by the use of tax incentives to lure businesses from one state or community to another—policies that, more often than not, are politically motivated, wasteful, and highly ineffective. Bartik shows that such tax incentives account for about 80 percent of all the resources devoted to place-based policies.

These tax incentives go overwhelmingly to large established firms—think Amazon HQ2 or Foxconn—that do not need them. They do not target high-value, high-growth, or locally-rooted firms. Nor do these tax incentives target distressed communities—more affluent states are as aggressive in providing incentives as more distressed states, and within states, there is little effective targeting of incentives on distressed communities.  

Good place-based policies that bring jobs to people are the bread and butter of state and local economic development. They must be crafted in ways that actually help improve the economies of distressed communities, create better paying jobs for their workers, and generate meaningful economic and social opportunity for families and children that live in them. That means curtailing excessive incentives and focusing on policies that work.

Instead of offering incentive packages to big firms, cities and states should favor improving the mix of business services and business inputs to locally-rooted small and medium-sized firms. This should entail policies like helping local startups and startup ecosystems, skill development, technology transfer, and providing education and training programs that bolster the local workforce and connect workers to local firms. As Bartik notes, such policies are five to ten times more cost-effective than incentives in creating local jobs.

An effective strategy for revitalizing distressed communities can’t be a set of politically-motivated one-off policies, it must take the form of a long-term package of complementary polices attuned to local economic conditions. Bartik believes that it should be subject to ongoing revaluation and recalibration and it may well cost less than the current wasteful policy dominated by incentives.

Bartik offers two key suggestions for federal policy. One is for the federal government to help curb the current wasteful inter-state competition over incentives, most of which would be illegal in the European Union. Here, he suggests imposing a federal “incentive tax” as high as 100 percent on big incentive packages to large firms, those with more than 10,000 employees. Bartik sees this as more economically, administratively, and politically feasible than an outright ban on all incentives.

His second suggestion is for a more integrated and comprehensive block grant approach for distressed places aimed at providing needed assistance for job training, skill development, business services, local cluster development, infrastructure and other programs that do work to bolster distressed places. That of course will most likely have to wait for a new administration.

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CityLab Daily: Greening Without Gentrification

What We’re Following

Green with envy: New York City’s High Line has become the blueprint for transforming old infrastructure into new green space. From the Los Angeles River to “The 606” in Chicago to the BeltLine in Atlanta, these ambitious urban projects aim to revitalize neighborhoods that historically had little access to parks. But they also risk replicating one downside of the High Line, which has been criticized for fueling gentrification and driving longtime residents out of the once-affordable neighborhoods along its path.

Some park developers are beginning to realize the need to stabilize a changing neighborhood before breaking ground on new parks. To that end, researchers at UCLA and the University of Utah looked at 27 developments underway in 19 cities to examine whether “greening without gentrification” is possible. The results are a mixed bag, but it’s clear there has been a change in understanding how green space relates to housing development. CityLab’s Laura Bliss has the story: How to Build a New Park So Its Neighbors Benefit

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Why Americans Stopped Volunteering

The terror attacks on September 11, 2001, inspired a national surge in civic spirit. But volunteering rates have been declining over the last two decades.

Linda Poon

Choked by Air Pollution, Krakow Bans Coal From Homes

In a city where coal and wood are commonly used to heat homes, forcing change is a meaningful step to help clear the air—but more challenges remain.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Trouble With America’s Water

Lead-tainted drinking water is not only a problem in Flint and Newark.

Olga Khazan

Why Essex Crossing Is a Model Mega-Development

With a large share of affordable housing and restrained architecture, the six-acre project seeks to fit into—rather than shake up—New York’s Lower East Side.

James S. Russell

Rikers Was Planned as NYC’s Kinder, Gentler Jail. What Happened?

When Rikers Island jails were designed, critics called them “palaces for prisoners.” New York City is planning replacements, but will they be any better?

Chelsey Sanchez

Off the Walls

Dancers at the Reach rehearse in Studio J, which features crinkle-concrete walls. (Richard Barnes)

Visitors to a new expansion at the Kennedy Center in D.C. are sure to notice one unusual design element: “crinkle concrete.” The material was specifically developed for the project to find ways to use concrete—acoustically and aesthetically—that had not been tried before. CityLab’s Kriston Capps spoke with a project architect about finding new applications for an ancient building material: How Architects Are Making Concrete Look Like Crumpled Paper

What We’re Reading

Uber and Lyft say they don’t plan to reclassify their drivers as employees after the passage of California’s new gig worker legislation (Vox)

Trump officials toured an unused FAA facility in California in search for a place to relocate homeless people (Washington Post)

Delivery trucks are hurting cities. Can making them smaller help? (Curbed)

In an area beset by violence and deportations, Chicago opens a mental health clinic for infants and toddlers (Chalkbeat)

We’re getting these murals all wrong (The Nation)

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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Why Essex Crossing Is a Model Mega-Development

At the new Essex Market on the Lower East Side, fish heads are sold next to blood-red tuna. Chubby pigs’ feet share a cold case with rippling honeycombs of tripe, not far from a stand offering bespoke Scandinavian smoked salmon. You’ll find sellers of jams and spices, several bakery and coffee stands, but no chains. Two small grocery stores feature fresh vegetables and packaged goods that people who cook rather than reheat would buy.

The city-owned market, which first opened in 1940 and reopened across the street in the spring, is the star in the surprisingly low-drama fruition of one of the longest-running and most controversial redevelopments in New York City history. (In a city known for epic battles over megaprojects, that’s saying something.)

The grand opening of Essex Market in May 2019. The new market’s interior was designed by SHoP Architects. (QuallsBenson)

The market occupies much of the ground floor of the Essex, a 26-story apartment tower clad in two-tone brown panels that is the centerpiece of the 1.9-million-square-foot Essex Crossing development. The Essex is one of four completed buildings in the nine-building project. They rise along Delancey Street, at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

A history of failed plans

Essex Crossing’s epic, $1.7 billion journey began in the misted past of the Robert Moses era—the 1950s, when dense blocks of six- and seven-story tenements, fretworked with fire escapes, were targeted for demolition by the urban-renewal czar. The blocks had housed waves of Jewish and Italian immigrants; later, African Americans and Puerto Ricans moved in. The neighborhood had been among the most crowded places on Earth at the turn of the 20th century, with people living in conditions as squalid as any slum megalopolis existing today.

In the era when “blighted” blocks were cleared by the dozen and displacement was rampant, Moses succeeded in demolishing a 26-acre swath running along the south side of Delancey Street, which would have been shadowed by his elevated Lower Manhattan Expressway had that not been quashed by protests. The demolition of tenements housing some 1,800 low-income families proceeded, but the planned replacement development fell through as Moses’s power waned and opposition grew.

Over decades, rubble-strewn blocks were paved over for parking as redevelopment schemes came and went. Battles among the vying local populations were blamed for the long impasse, but a 2014 New York Times investigation showed that Sheldon Silver, who had become a power in the state legislature (representing the neighborhood for some 40 years), and William Rapfogel, who ran the taxpayer-funded Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, secretly manipulated the development process to assure a continued Jewish voting bloc in the neighborhood in which they both grew up. (Silver was convicted of accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks last year. Rapfogel went to prison for helping to steal $9 million from the council.)

The Bloomberg administration’s Economic Development Corporation led an effort to build consensus around a new plan. Delancey Street Associates won the competition to execute the plan in 2013, with a team capable of fulfilling the wide variety of commitments the city had made to the community in a five-year consultative process. (These commitments were sweetened by zoning that tripled the allowable square footage.) The Delancey partnership includes BFC Partners and L+M Development Partners, both strong in affordable and market-rate housing; Taconic Investment Partners, a specialist in tech office space; the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, with expertise in mixed-income and projects that serve nonprofits; and the Prusik Group, a retail specialist.

“Bloomberg and his team worked with a community task force and got buy-in after 45 years of frustration,” said Isaac Henderson, L+M’s Essex Crossing managing partner.

The road to Essex Crossing

The commitments include offering 561 of the 1,079 total apartments at below-market rates, more than double the usual percentage provided in such “inclusionary” projects. A right to return was established for those displaced by the 1950s demolitions, though eligible residents are likely to be few since so much time has passed.

The master plan, by the architecture firm SHoP, deploys the activities negotiated by the community across sites totaling six acres. These are scattered both north and south of Delancey, amid a melange of dour public-housing slabs, leftover tenements, one-story chain-retail “taxpayer” buildings, and a couple of glass-clad apartment buildings. SHoP didn’t aspire to develop a tidy ensemble, arguably a fool’s errand. It located five residential towers on the largest sites along the south side of Delancey. They have a family relationship in proportion, and in the varied window patterns and metal panels in tones of umber, tan, and bronze (“The neighborhood didn’t want glassy,” said Henderson).

The rich mix of public uses and local services pops up along the intimate side streets rather than pedestrian-unfriendly Delancey, which is filled with vehicles hurtling toward the bridge. Beneath a 14-story tower of 99 units called the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments, Dattner Architects housed a gathering place for older people, family services, community-facility space, a neighborhood medical clinic, and the GrandLo café, which helps develop youth work skills. These are operated by the Grand Street Settlement, a social-services provider founded nearby in 1916.

The clinic on the ground floor of the Frances Goldin Senior Apartments, designed by Dattner Architects. (© David Sundberg/ESTO)
The Park at Essex Crossing by West 8. (© Noah Devereaux)

Across from the Goldin and along quiet Broome Street, the Dutch landscape architecture studio West 8 tucked a wandering path, quiet tree-shaded sitting areas, and a playground into a 15,000-square-foot park. Abutting the park to the south is the Rollins, a 15-story L-shaped slab in umber brick and dark-metal panels, designed by Beyer Blinder Belle. It houses Target and Trader Joe’s stores, catering to neighborhoods to the south underserved by supermarkets and larger discount chains.

West of the Essex, SHoP devised a rippling, tan metal-paneled facade for 242 Broome, a 14-story and 55-unit condo building. It includes a new 40,000-square-foot home for the International Center of Photography, both a museum and a school, a cultural institution selected pursuant to the agreement with the neighborhood.

242 Broome, by SHoP Architects. The building’s folded-aluminum facade is intended to evoke the metal ornament and fire escapes of tenements around the Lower East Side. (Field Condition)

The relocated and expanded market establishes Essex Crossing as a destination that will draw far more than locals, though the exteriors by Handel Architects are so reticent you would hardly know it. It replaces a structure built by the city in 1940 under Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who wanted to tidy the chaos of pushcarts that had clogged the tenement streets since the late 19th century. The city brought in local and existing tenants to cater to wide local tastes and spending capacities.

The Prusik Group operates the market for the city, and is building out its own set of stands one level below: the Market Line, opening this fall. The Market Line will extend underground into the base of two adjacent structures still in construction. The next phase will host art galleries, music, and local fashion. The third phase will feature a variety of prepared foods. The Market Line’s improvisatory mix intends to reflect the wealth of creativity in the neighborhood.

Three structures north of Delancey will complete the development. Affordable housing and community services were built first, says Henderson, to demonstrate to the skeptical community that promises would be kept.

Healing scars

For all of the richness of the development, an architectural ambiguity deprives the streetscape of energy. The project components most likely to attract people—the market, the Market Line, a 14-screen movie theater, and the photography center—are treated the same way, fronted by slabs of glass that reveal the activity within only after dark. Why couldn’t these diverse uses express themselves more individually, to convey the wealth of possibilities within?

Essex Market is located at the base of the Essex, a 26-story tower by Handel Architects. (QuallsBenson)

Only the movie theater has a significance presence on Delancey. At the Essex (the exterior by Handel Architects), where Delancey foot traffic is at its thickest, the cramped entrance to Essex Market barely registers. The market and Market Line were intentionally focused to the rear, to draw people along Broome Street from as far away as SoHo. Inside, ShoP sloped up the ceiling of the market (following the contours of the cinema seating above), making space for a daylight-filled dining area and mezzanine and glassed-in teaching kitchen.

The scars of the neighborhood’s long neglect will not heal overnight, but Essex Crossing proposes a gentle pushback to the conventional wisdom that new development only displaces rather than helps meet the needs of lower-income neighborhoods. It is fitting that a project that took so long to realize can be considered a model.

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