Being a part of group is awesome (go team!) but so is individual
effort. The uncritical embrace of collaboration above all else can lead,
as a social scientist at the SPUR panel remarked, to the reverse of
what was intended: group-think, conformity, consensus for the sake of
peace-making. Further, the suburban corporate campus, even when it
attempts, as Facebook and Google are, to approximate urban environment,
can often serve to exacerbate the type of self-reinforcing behaviors
Bill Bishop explored a few years ago in his book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.
Forest City’s Alexa Arena, another participant in the SPUR panel, says
that her company’s anthropological research while working on the more
iterative workspace model seen in its 5M Project
revealed that employees working in these environments found that their
best ideas came not while in that bustling, lively office but more
likely when they were in their own neighborhoods hanging out with people
not necessarily in their own line of work, or waiting for lunch at the
Korean taco truck parked in front of the office.
To navigate certain parts of New York City — namely Queens and much of Manhattan — all you need to be able to do is count. In Manhattan neighborhoods like the West Village, and most of Brooklyn, things get a good bit trickier. You can no longer depend on the logical numbered progression of streets and avenues, and must instead rely on some other picture inside your head.
For a while now psychologists have debated just what that picture looks like. Some believe we need to orient ourselves by local reference points. Under this theory, we’re lost until we see that certain street or certain landmark, at which point the rest of the grid emerges in our minds. Others argue that experience is our mental cartographer. This idea suggests that if you cruise around the city enough, you develop a spatial memory that helps you find your way no matter which direction you face; at the same time, if this is true, it should become harder to reach a destination that’s farther from your familiar starting point.
A third alternative suggests that our internal GPS system is informed by frequently looking at maps. In other words, the more time we spend finding directions on Google Maps, the more our minds may grow familiar with the officially documented outline of our city, rather than the one created through our own experiences. This idea receives support in a recent study published online late last month, ahead of print, in the journal Psychological Science. A team of psychologists led by Julia Frankenstein of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, found evidence that we’re best oriented when facing north — just like a reliance on maps would suggest.
Using data released by the Centers for Disease Control, we can see that there is something of a binge drinking belt across the northern half of the country, and that liberal states drink more.
Binge drinking varies from one in ten adults (10.9 percent) at the low end of the spectrum to more than one in four (25.6 percent) at the high end. There is something of a binge drinking belt across the north of the country, running westward from New England, Pennsylvania and Ohio to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana. Alaska ranks high too, suggesting that long, cold winters might play a role, though tropical Hawaii is in the top tier as well.
With the help of my MPI colleague Charlotta Mellander, I took a quick look at some of the economic and demographic factors that might be associated with binge drinking. The correlations that we noticed, of course, do not prove causation, only that an association exists. Several factors do stand out, however.
Binge drinking is more common in liberal states, those voted for Obama in 2008, and it is negatively associated with states that voted for McCain (with correlations of roughly .3 and -.3 respectively). Binge drinking states are also more “extroverted.” The correlation between extroverted personality types (one of the “big five” personality traits identified by psychologists) and binge drinking is .3.
“In Portland, and in the West in general, urban poverty is less of a concentrated urban phenomenon and the low income households living with low food access are really spread all over an urban area,” says Leete.
While food deserts may be more of a reality in cities in the Eastern U.S. where poverty is more concentrated, cities in the West have more suburbanized poverty. She argues that these aren’t food deserts, but food hinterlands. The issue, Leete says, is not just areas with few grocery stores, but the scattered low-income people who live too far from grocery stores and have few options to get to them.
“The food desert idea has been bandied about a lot and it’s been popular, but it’s really only a relevant problem to people who don’t have access to cars, and that’s a certain particular subset of the population. It’s not even the poor population, but it might be 25 percent of the poor population,” says Leete. “In some urban areas virtually all or some huge percentage of the poor have access to cars and in some other urban areas very few of them do. So it’s a very context-specific problem.”
And in the context of transportation, residents in food hinterlands are limited. But merely building a grocery store can’t possibly accommodate a fairly large population that’s spread out across the city.
Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, few architects or developers could rival John Portman’s impact on America’s downtowns. And few built in such intensely polarizing ways.
With the rare luxury of being both an architect and developer on his projects, Portman, who died in December at the age of 93, brought the promise of urban revitalization from New York to Los Angeles through his signature cylindrical glass and concrete slab hotel complexes with unforgettable interiors.
The Atlanta native is most celebrated for designs that exposed the guts of his buildings—elevators, stairwells, corridors—to create a voyeuristic spectacle visible from every floor. Prada, an architecturally savvy fashion brand, recently used these elements charmingly in a 2017 short movie, The Postman Dreams 2, a promotional film shot in Los Angeles’s Bonaventure Center.
But these works have often been criticized by urbanists for turning their backs on the places they appeared in. Urban sociologist William Whyte called out two specific Portman project in his 1980 film, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, saying of the Renaissance Center in Detroit that it presented itself as a place to “come in and be safe from Detroit.” L.A.’s Bonaventure Center, Whyte added, was scaled to the freeway, not pedestrians.
These were private-sector responses to the challenges facing big-but-struggling American cities of the 1970s and ‘80s that needed to attract business and tourism. It was thought that something like a hotel and conference center with easy car access and no need to venture out for a meal or an errand would make for a happy visitor.
But American downtowns have long since shed their image as decaying centers of crime, poverty, and disinvestment. And today’s traveler is just as eager to roam around an unfamiliar city as they are to photograph a Portman atrium for their Instagram. Can a typical Portman building change in order to best fit a 21st century city?
“I don’t think it’s that hard to solve,” says architecture professor Preston Scott Cohen. He headed a 2015 studio at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design called “Portmanian Architecture,” and some of the student work from it is featured in Portman’s America & Other Speculations, released last May.
Perhaps the best example of a Portman do-over is one of Whyte’s subjects—Detroit’s Renaissance Center. In the mid-1990s, General Motors agreed to relocate its headquarters into the vast downtown complex, which opened in 1977 but struggled to live up to its promise. So the company asked Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) to come up with a plan.
“We had to help GM understand how they would take seven of their product lines, merge them into one facility, and integrate the facility into Detroit,” says Bill Baker, engineer at SOM. “It had its back turned to the city and riverfront when it was conceived, so the goal was to change all of that and embrace those elements.”
So SOM removed the nearly 30-foot tall concrete mechanical bunkers facing the street. Inside, the hotel lobby was moved up from the main floor of the atrium, which was then turned into space for GM. A new Wintergarden facing the Detroit River opened in 2001. “When you’re inside the building now you can look out to riverfront and use it as a civic space, a place for product launches, restaurants, and retail,” says SOM partner Richard Tomlinson. “You can go down there to get a coffee and just look out at the river.”
Its new layout made for better connections to the outside, and addressed a particular flaw in Portman’s approach to the interior: “The unrelenting symmetry really was the main challenge,” said Tomlinson. “Everyone got lost, even people who worked there.” Still, SOM’s solution wasn’t to redesign so much as to find the right places to intervene.
That’s a philosophy that rings true for Cohen. “I don’t think the crisis of his work is as incompatible with the city as it may have been,” he says. As for the idea of addressing Whyte’s critique of the Bonaventure in L.A., “It works; it’s not having a problem,” says Cohen. “The blocks surrounding it can’t support pedestrian culture. Whether we like it or not, it happens to be right.”
For a Portman that has been changed for the worse, look no further than Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza Hotel, which lost an immersive indoor water feature—much like the one inside the Bonaventure—to a renovation. Cohen describes the decision as a “neutering” rooted in practicality. “The water pushed everything out, now the check-in and bar are closer together. It’s programmatically better now —what’s beautiful about it made it harder to use.”
Despite the risks posed by the rise of Airbnb and online hotel booking sites, Portman hotels seem to be adapting well; their scale and grandeur have slid into middle age gracefully while the downtowns they’re in have been re-energized and repopulated. “It’s not only important to indict these buildings for their errors, but to see how they work today,” says Cohen, “and to try and stop hanging on to bad memories.”
Eight months later, it still feels brutally early to be discussing a memorial at London’s Grenfell Tower. Destroyed on June 14 after flammable cladding turned a domestic fire into a lethal blaze, the still-gutted, uninhabitable public housing tower remains a grim reminder of last summer’s tragedy, where 71 people died and many more were injured or made homeless. Ultimately though, according to a U.K. government press release published Thursday, the site will become a formal memorial to the fire’s victims.
The announcement of the plan—which could also see the nearby Latimer Road Tube station renamed to Grenfell—strikes the right note so far, making it clear that residents of the West London housing project will get the deciding say on any kind of memorial that happens on the tower’s site.
The announcement is nonetheless treading on delicate ground. The aftershocks of this tragedy, after all, are still very much present. Eight months later, the handling of the Grenfell fire remains a running scandal of official incompetence and indifference, broken promises, and ongoing hardship for the former residents. Perhaps worst of all, at many sites across the U.K., a disaster like this could happen at any moment for all the same reasons.
This is, after all, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided with proper safety standards. The blaze was sparked by a small domestic fire that could have been contained under normal circumstances. A cheap aluminum composite cladding—banned on tall buildings in Germany and the U.S., but permitted in Britain—caused the fire to spread with alarming speed. Unbearably, residents were well aware of the flaws and actively petitioned to have them changed.
You might expect cladding of this type to have been stripped off every single building by now. In fact, this work has barely begun. At the time of the fire, 301 buildings across Britain were covered in the flammable cladding that proved so lethal at Grenfell. This week, the government announced that only seven of those buildings have fully removed the cladding. All told, only 4 percent of British social housing covered in the flammable material have been stripped and renovated.
Meanwhile, the trauma continues for the project’s residents. Just this week, the fire’s toll rose once more with the death of Maria Del Pilar Burton, a 74-year-old tower resident who had remained in the hospital after suffering severe burns. Burton’s neighbors, who were mostly public housing tenants, remain largely without permanent housing in one of London’s most expensive areas, despite a thin strip of public housing on its northern edge. By Christmas, only 49 of Grenfell Tower’s 207 households had found permanent homes. The rest remained in temporary accommodation or, for the majority, hotels.
Residents of the complex that surrounded the tower—living beneath a burned-out hulk where their neighbors died—are still experiencing intermittent hot water and central heating, and faltering gas supplies. Meanwhile, their social landlord has proposed to start charging them rent once more.
There’s an overwhelming sense from locals that they aren’t being sufficiently represented or listened to at the public inquiry. Take all that together and it’s no wonder why the Grenfell Tower disaster remains unhealed. Even before the fire, the neighborhood’s situation was paradoxical: London’s poorest ward, located within the city’s wealthiest borough, housing many people who believed that local officials saw them only as an inconvenience. That belief was only confirmed by the distant, unaccountable handling of the aftermath.
Much of the public agrees with them. Last month at the Brit Awards, Britain’s main music award ceremony, hip hop artist Stormy made headlines by using a performance to ask, “Theresa May, where’s the money for Grenfell?” A subsequent petition demanding more involvement for residents in the public inquiry has so far gathered 155,000 signatures.
Into this chaotic, embittered situation walks the proposal to preserve the Grenfell Tower site as a memorial. It might ultimately turn out well as a plan. If residents genuinely get to pilot the process, this memorial could be a fitting tribute and site of remembrance for the fire’s victims. Right now, it nonetheless feels like a monument for a tragedy that’s still far from over.
In many ways, Trump embodies in one person this nation’s intense polarization and deep-seated confusion surrounding firearm regulations. But which position is backed up by the best evidence? What does science say about what lawssave lives and what don’t? That’s where the Gun Policy in America project comes in.
Over the last two years, researchers at the RAND Corporation have synthesized all the available research on the effect of various gun laws on a range of outcomes. To that, they’ve added a survey of policy experts both for and against gun control. The results of this self-funded project have been visualized in interactive maps and charts on their website. Think of this as your one-shop-stop to understand what we know about gun policy—and importantly, what we don’t.
There are two big takeaways. One, some gun control policies clearly seem to decrease certain types of violence. Two, while there is more overlap than one would have expected among experts on both sides of the issue, the huge gaps in research make it impossible to reach any kind of consensus.
“We haven’t invested, as a country, as much as we should in building a data infrastructure,” said Andrew R. Morral, the lead researcher on the project. “The second thing is: There’s not very much investment in research to use the data that is available or to collect more data.”
Let’s dive into the first part of the project. Clicking on the little magnifying glass in the “policy analysis” section pulls up the table below, which gives a snapshot of the literature review. In the vertical column on the left are the gun policies the RAND researchers have examined—both restrictive ones such as bans on assault weapons and minimum age requirements, as well as permissive ones such as concealed-carry and “stand your ground” laws. In the first row, you can see the spectrum of outcomes the researchers were interested in. Among the negative ones are mass shootings, suicide, accidental deaths, and violent crime. But they also looked for research on links between these policies and gun sales, incidents of defensive gun use, and hunting and recreation.
The table is populated with the results of the analysis: The darker the purple, the stronger the evidence supporting the effect of a policy on the outcome. The gray cells, on the other hand, show where there’s no research at all. (On the website, you can click through to get a detailed explanation of how the researchers came to these conclusions.) Here, science staunchly backs up the claim that laws that prevent children from getting their hands on guns help reduce unintentional injuries and suicide (deepest purple boxes).
For four outcomes that are central to the gun debate going on in the country—how gun control laws hinder people’s ability to defend themselves, whether they discourage hunting for sport, and whether they increase or decrease the likelihood of mass shootings and officer-involved shootings—the researchers found very little authoritative evidence. (See: the many boxes marked “inconclusive.”) Via the report accompanying the project:
This does not mean that these policies are ineffective; they might well be quite effective. Instead, it partly reflects shortcomings in the contributions that science has made to policy debates. It also partly reflects the policies we chose to investigate, all of which have been implemented in some U.S. states and so have proven to be politically and legally feasible (at least in some jurisdictions).
Here’s another way of visualizing the results, available on the website. Below are seven policies (on the left) that research has found to have substantive effects on at least four outcomes (listed on the right). The brown lines show a positive effect, whereas the green ones indicate a negative effect. The thicker the lines, the stronger the science. Below, you can see moderate evidence that background checks and ownership restrictions for individuals with mental illness decrease suicide and violent crime. In other words, the review demonstrates that some gun control policies, at least, do work.
Given the lack of scientific research regarding many of the policies, the RAND researchers went ahead and surveyed experts and advocates on both sides of the battle. Their sample included those who supported looser restrictions on guns (NRA, Gun Owners of America, etc.) and those who supported tighter laws (Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Mayors Against Illegal Guns etc.). On their website, the researchers have put up a nifty interactive map to see the results of the survey.
If you toggle a particular law “on,” you can see what both camps of experts think will happen to a particular outcome if that law is enacted across the country. So let’s say I want to see the effect of a blanket ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunitions—a key demand in the post-Parkland gun conversation—on mass shootings. When I select those options, the results show that pro-gun experts believe the policy will produce no change (first map below). The anti-gun experts believe it would lead to a 11 percent decrease in mass shootings, nationwide (second map below).
Similarly, this is what the experts think will happen to firearm homicides if “stand your ground” laws pop up across the country. The first group thinks firearm-related murders will go down 4 percent; the second thinks they’ll go up 2 percent. (A small caveat: If more policies are selected via this tool, more assumptions come into play, and the resulting maps get less reliable.)
A key hopeful finding of this survey: The two groups do, in fact, have shared goals. They just disagree on how to achieve them. “We find some pretty good evidence that there’s not a values disagreement here,” Morral said. “It’s not that one side favors community violence reduction and the other side favors Second Amendment rights more. Everyone wanted to reduce homicides, suicides, mass shootings, and accidents—the other things were more secondary. … They appeared to evaluate policies in the same way, but they were working from different assumptions about what the policies could achieve.”
That’s important, because more rigorous research around some of the most contentious gun policies could actually help bridge the gap in opinion, the researchers concluded. But getting that data has long been a challenge, for nakedly political reasons: a 1996 amendment to a spending bill—lobbied for by the NRA—that forbade the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from using government funds for research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”
For more than two decades, that legislation has hindered researchers from treating gun violence as the public health problem that it is. While there are national datasets that contain information about the circumstances of each traffic fatality, no such database exists for gun deaths. (Traffic deaths slightly outnumber gun deaths overall, but are less numerous in 21 states. Along with suicides, injuries, accidents, and defensive shooting, all gun incidents came to over 60,000 in 2017, according to one count.) If decreasing gun violence is indeed a shared value in America, both camps will have to start with the numbers, so that we can build a shared understanding of the scale of the problem.
Where do mass shootings take place? While the tragic pattern of who commits mass shootings fits a particular profile, where these attacks occur is less demographically predictable. As CityLab’s Richard Florida and Alastair Boone write, the places that suffer mass shootings run the full gamut of American communities, leaving victims that look a lot more like the country as a whole.
Survivors will get a final say over the site’s future. Meanwhile, little has been done to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Yesterday we asked for your thoughts on Barack Obama’s comments about whether his presidential library would cause gentrification on the Southside. Several readers took issue with use of “debacle” in our subject line, and we hear you; “conundrum” would’ve been a better fit. Many others weighed in on Obama’s remarks. Here’s a sample:
Katie H. from Chicago:
WBEZ’s Natalie Moore has done great reporting on the neighborhoods that are and are not gentrifying in Chicago. While gentrification is a huge problem in the city, particularly in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, the West and South sides that are overwhelmingly black have the opposite problem—generations of disinvestment. This is a thorny, complicated issue, and I don’t know what the Obama Foundation will bring for the future, but as far as his analysis on the current state of Chicago… he’s right.
Stephen D. from Middletown, Connecticut:
If a fancy $6 cupcake store brings to the neighborhood people with the expectations of good schools and low crime and the power to demand them, then the “gentrification” represented by the cupcake store has benefited the people of the neighborhood. However, communities need to be vigilant about the trends in the relationship between incomes and rents… The time to write such language is before there is substantial gentrification.
David C. from Houston:
“Gentrification” is a fake meme that acts as a pejorative to keep people at bay, away from a neighborhood that doesn’t want them. If “displacement” is a problem because somebody improved a structure and taxes went up, Obama is absolutely right: address that specific problem with those specific people.
Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart are the latest companies to take a hard turn on guns. Dick’s announced on Wednesday a host of new store policies following the discovery that the shooter in the Parkland massacre once purchased a shotgun at a Dick’s outlet. No longer will Dick’s sell assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines, and regardless of state law, no Dick’s will sell to anyone under 21. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, declared the same age limit.
The Dick’s statement went further, issuing a list of demands for the government, including a federal ban on assault-style rifles.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the victims and their loved ones,” reads the company’s forceful, even emotional memo. “But thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
A national debate about gun policy has turned into a consumer politics argument about the NRA itself. Major airlines, rental-car companies, retailers, insurers, and other firms have all ended their agreements with the NRA since the Parkland massacre.
Against a backdrop of escalating pronouncements on the NRA, somelocal leaders in a position to push back have stayed silent. One Dallas City Council member pleaded with the organization to reconsider hosting its convention in the city in May. While Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says that he shares those concerns, the contract is already signed. Like a lot of cities, Dallas pays the NRA hundreds of thousands of dollars to lure its annual convention (and thousands of members) to town.
But other cities that pay six-figure sums to the NRA have not followed suit.Leaders from the circuit of Bible Belt cities that frequently host the NRA are slow to jump into the public debate over the group.Two years ago, then–Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said that she would be glad to host the NRA again, like in 2010, when the city paid the NRA $150,000 in free rent at the convention center plus $15,000 in cash. (That was less memorable than in 2000, when Charlton Heston lifted a rifle over his head, telling NRA convention attendees in Charlotte that if Al Gore wanted his gun, he’d have to pry it from his “cold, dead hands.”) This week, Charlotte’s current mayor, Vi Lyles, declined to say whether the city should continue to offer its support to the NRA. (Charlotte just recently submitted a bid to host the 2020 Republican National Convention.)
Of the 17 cities that have hosted the NRA convention over the last 25 years, only one has said unequivocally that it would not support bringing the group back: Seattle. The only surprise here may be that Seattle ever held an NRA convention in the first place. It did, in 1997, likely for the last time. “The minute the NRA stands for responsible gun ownership and supports policies that will save lives in Seattle and every other city, then we might be willing to discuss,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told CityLab.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James echoed the sentiment. “If the NRA changes certain positions on common-sense gun-safety laws, he would entertain talking to the organization,” a spokesperson said.
An official at the mayor’s office in Phoenix, which hosted the NRA convention in 1995 and 2009, said that the city has no current plans to bring the convention back to town. But Phoenix City Council member Thelda Williams says that the city completed a $600 million expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center with an eye toward hosting large conventions like the NRA. “We would welcome a repeat visit,” she told CityLab in a statement.
Even in Orlando, where a man shot and killed 50 people (including himself) in 2016’s horrific Pulse nightclub shooting, leaders have not ruled out hosting the NRA convention again. A spokesperson for Mayor Buddy Dyer deferred, saying that Orlando’s convention Center belongs to Orange County, Florida. The county did not respond to an inquiry.
While Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts might like to bring the NRA convention to the Cornhusker State—and tweeted so on Friday—there’s no city in Nebraska large enough to host it. (An average NRA convention, with an attendance size of 70,000 members, would rank as Nebraska’s third-largest city.)
Leaders may not want to refuse to host the NRA’s annual meeting on speech grounds. This is contested legal territory: After Dallas banned a sex expo, Exxxotica, from renting its convention center in 2016, the porn convention sued the city. The case is now in appeals. There’s little doubt that the NRA would respond aggressively to a local effort to keep the NRA out, just as it has responded aggressively to local efforts to keep guns out.
However, direct consequences for leaders who shun the NRA may not be as painful as for some federal politicians. The NRA does not much bother funding state campaigns, and gave only $309,000 across about 500 contributions in 2016 and 2017 races, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The NRA’s only listed contributions in any local election went to Todd Spitzer, a California Republican who received $1,600 in his two races for Orange County supervisor. Of course, that’s not to discount the NRA’s massive influence in mobilizing voters through issue spending and member outreach. But how much worse a grade could a big-city Democrat earn on guns than an F?
As it stands, only a few cities are both large enough and southern enough to welcome 70,000 gun-owning NRA members to town. Among them are Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville, Nashville, Houston, and Phoenix, most of which are repeat hosts. Meanwhile, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took on the NRA and won last year—and now he’s running to be Florida’s governor on a message of stricter gun control and local freedom from state preemption.
“What do we want? Gun control!” Gillum shouted, leading a column of 1,000 students from Florida State University and others in a march from campus to the state capitol last week. Public opinion and corporate sympathies may be falling in behind him.
In Brussels’s fight against extreme pollution, the city is taking some of the most radical action plotted by a Western capital so far. After a slate of drastic new measures were approved this month, the city’s plan to fight especially poor air quality includes some standard fare, like temporarily making public transit free, but also some last-resort measures that could effectively place the city on lockdown when the air gets especially dangerous.
The moves agreed by the Belgian Capital Region are as follows. If levels of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere stay high (above 50 micrograms per cubic meter) for over 48 hours, the city will make all public transit and bikesharing free. Speed limits would be slashed, and wood burning for any home that possesses an alternative heat source would be banned.
These moves are decisive, but not unprecedented—Paris and Madrid have similar emergency measures in their arsenal. But Brussels would be prepared to go much further. If pollution peaks persisted or worsened, the heating of office buildings would be banned, a ruling that could be followed by the ultimate measure of a complete ban on all non-electric, non-emergency vehicles circulating. If the city pulled out all these stops, it could effectively grind to a halt.
These measures are only planned to target true emergencies, not ongoing problems. The regional environmental agency recommends that particulate levels remain below 20 micrograms per cubic meter, meaning pollution would have to reach two and a half times the level the agency deems desirable before emergency measures kick in.
They are, however, only the most striking of a general push to wean the city of its car dependency. On January 1, the capital region introduced a Low Emissions Zone that covers the entire capital region minus the ring road. This zone effectively bans the most polluting diesel vehicles (those with emissions at Euro 1 standard, built before 1997, or no standard at all). Owners of these vehicles can drive into the city on a maximum of 8 days annually, but only by purchasing a €35 ($43) daily pass that renders them prohibitively expensive. Each year, the Low Emission Zone’s restrictions will tighten. By 2025, only drivers of the cleanest category of diesel car, and the four cleanest categories of gas-powered cars will be allowed in.
This staggered implementation means Brussels will have to wait a long time for air quality improvements—there aren’t that many diesel vehicles built before 1997 on the road—but at least it’s moving in the right direction. With a congestion charge also being considered, Brussels’s Mobility Minister Pascal Smet has made it clear that the moves are purposefully intended to dissuade people from driving. “If you drive less than 10,000 km per year, it’s not worth buying and owning a car and you are better off sharing it with others,” he told the Brussels Times. “On average, cars are parked 95 percent of the time in Brussels.”
There’s a decisiveness to Brussels’s push for cleaner air that, at least seen from afar, is impressive. The problems they are designed to alleviate, however, are grave, and some form of action is desperately needed. The city’s air quality is appalling—the worst of any Western European capital, and comfortably surpassing larger cities such as London, Paris, and Rome in its high levels of carcinogenic particulates. The source of these problems is not hard to find. Diesel fuel has long dominated Belgium’s vehicle fleet, falling from a remarkable 78.9 percent of all cars to a still huge 51.8 percent share in 2017. It is only this week that diesel prices have in some places climbed above gas prices, finally removing the fiscal incentive for generally more polluting cars.
But diesel use isn’t the only culprit. By European standards, Brussels remains a very car-reliant city, with over 50 percent of commuters using cars for at least part of their journey—almost double the rate in Paris—partly because public transit coverage in the outskirts is patchy. The city’s bike lane network is reasonably good, but cycling and walking rates are still low: Just 6 percent of all journeys take place by bike or on foot. The result of all this is legendary traffic jams that pump the city full of harmful pollutants.
There’s been public pressure on the state to change the situation for some time. In November, a coalition of 100 doctors highlighted the city’s pollution problem in an open letter, noting that poor air quality killed an estimated 632 people prematurely across Belgium every year. The city’s residents have been getting restive, too. Earlier this month, a demonstration saw city statues being draped with protective masks, as if to spare their poor bronze and marble lungs.
Tellingly, the Capital Region’s politicians are sympathetic, but have struggled for collective action. Smet, the mobility minister, actually applauded the doctors’ intervention, but in an urban region where much power remains vested in 19 municipalities, brokering collective action can be laborious. This is a city, after all, with six separate police forces, and where a parking permit can be valid for one side of the street straddling a municipal border, but not the other. The Capital Region also struggles with the limits of its remit. An officially bilingual territory squeezed between the French-speaking Wallonia Region and Dutch-speaking Flanders, its leaders have strongly criticized plans to expand the city’s beltway. Because the highway lies just outside the Capital Region in Flanders, however, those protests are so far failing to change the road plans.
The poor quality of Brussels’s air has another ironic twist to it. Across the E.U., it is the Brussels-located European Commission that is charged with reproving states who fail in their mutually agreed air quality targets. Just last month, environment ministers from nine E.U. states were summoned to Brussels to account for the insufficiency of their policies for combating air pollution. The European Commission itself is in no way directly responsible for managing Brussels’s air quality and transit, but it’s at least a little awkward to summon Europe’s environmental shirkers to a city that itself is often heavy-breathing under a pall of toxic filth.
Brussels’s new emergency measures won’t flush the Capital Region’s skies clean in a hurry. But at least they’re a sign of a genuine will to clear the air at Europe’s heart.