To Navigate Love, French Intellectuals Mapped It

Relationships can be hard to navigate, so French people in the mid-17th century found a way to cope: They mapped them.

“Cartes galantes,” or “gallant maps,” are a type of allegorical mapping. Authors of allegorical maps use commonly known topographic elements to represent feelings and ideas. Oceans and land masses are given witty labels such as “Sea of Enmity,” or “Castle in the Air,” an expression that refers to an idea unlikely to be realized.

The trend emerged in 16th-century Europe, but it was not until the mid-17th century in France that these cartes galantes really became the rage.

“As far as I know, there were no equivalent movements in other countries at the time, even if similar maps will eventually get published in other countries, especially in England in the XVIIIth century.” Daniel Maher, author of various writings dissecting these maps, told CityLab in an email.

The most famous example of the genre is Mademoiselle de Scudéry’s Carte de Tendre—roughly translated as Map of Tenderness—which was published in 1654 in her novel Clélie and was engraved by Francois Chauveau.

Scudéry maps out the imaginary country of Tendre, which is scattered with small towns one can stop through on the way to love—or despair. The journey starts at the bottom of the map. Carte de Tendre, engraving by Francois Chauveau, 1654. Translation by CityLab. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris)

The Carte de Tendre represents the imaginary country of Tenderness, depicted as a territory expanding beyond the map’s boundaries all the way up to the “Mer Dangereuse” (the“Dangerous Sea”) into the “Terres Inconnues”(“Uncharted Territories”). In the novel, the main character Clélie drafts the Carte de Tendre to map out how one can become a lover. The meaning of tendre is multi-dimensional, but behind it is a will to redefine relationships between the sexes outside of marriage, according to the writings of Sorbonne University professor of French literature Delphine Denis. This was a novel idea at the time, and coming from a woman, it was revolutionary.

After troubled times of civil unrest, mid-17th century France was the era of the “salons,” where intellectuals would gather to talk and exchange ideas. Mademoiselle de Scudéry had her own, and the map was created during a gathering. From these privileged spaces emerged a literary movement called the “Préciosité,” whose followers endeavored to embody refinement and elegant taste, and expressed themselves in an almost overwhelmingly eloquent manner. In “précieux” language, an armchair would become the “means of the conversation,” and the moon the “torch of the night.” The movement had its share of detractors, among them famous playwright Molière, who dedicated a whole satire to it, called “Les Précieuses Ridicules” (“The Ridiculous Précieuses”).

The traveler to the country of Tenderness is not presented with one specific itinerary, but rather a range of possibilities. In what some might consider the best-case scenario, these wanderers end up in the larger cities with positive names, like “Tendre sur Estime” (“Tenderness upon Esteem,” Esteem being one of the rivers of this imaginary country), or “Tendre sur Reconnaissance” (“Tenderness upon Gratefulness,” another river of the imaginary landscape.) However, the traveler can get lost and drift towards the “Lake of Indifference” or the “Sea of Enmity” instead. All can quickly turn sour by passing through the small towns of “Negligence” or “Complacency,” or bumping into the rocks of “Pride.”

“The cartes galantes fit in the lineage of the salon,” Maher wrote to CityLab. “Attendees would intervene playfully, while trying to tackle deeper philosophical reflections. The cartes galantes enabled the participants to show their wit by reacting to the allegorical content of the maps.” They conveyed the author’s ideas of courtship and relationships at a time more people were starting to talk openly about the topic.

The map adopts a moralizing tone that Scudéry’s did not have. Carte du Royaume de Coquetterie, 1654-58. Translation by CityLab. (Bibliotheque National de France, Paris.)

Around the same time, cleric François Hédelin, a religious leader known as the Abbé d’Aubignac, published a map that is the moral opposite of Scudéry’s. Sanctimonious in tone, the Carte du Royaume de Coquetterie (“Map of the Kingdom of Coquetry, or Flirtation”) depicts said kingdom as an isolated island that can be reached only by boat in stormy weather. Contrary to Scudéry’s map, the traveler to the Kingdom does not have many options: The itinerary through the island is pretty settled, and it is not a happy one. The adventurer’s only way out is another boat trip to the “Chappelle du St Retour” (“Chapel of the Holy Return”), under the watch of “Capitaine Repentir” (“Captain Repentance”).

The map mocks the literary movement of the “Préciosité”. Carte de l’Empire des Précieuses, 1650. Translation by CityLab. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris)

In the 1660s, the Carte de l’Empire des Précieuses (“Map of the Précieuses Empire”) follows this trend of the carte galante while also critiquing the movement. The map is anonymous, and the territory of “Précieuses” touches the regions of “Coquetry,” “Inauthenticity” and “Smooth Talking,” mocking the mannerism of the followers.

“I” stands for Island, as it was abbreviated in the original. Marriage is depicted as an archipelago. Translation by CityLab. Carte de l’Isle du Mariage, 1754. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris)

The Carte de l’Isle du Mariage (“Map of the Island of marriage”) was published about a century later, in 1754. Inspired by the written works of Eustache Le Noble, the author of the map is unknown, but reads as the “philosophe garçon,” or “boy philosopher.” The author depicts marriage and its possible pitfalls as an archipelago of dangerous islands located in the middle of the “Ocean mélancolique ou Grande Mer du mariage” (“Melancolic Ocean, also called the Large Sea of Marriage”). The main island of the archipelago is home to the Castle of Cuckoldry, or “Chateau du Cocuage.” The traveler is likely to come to these delightful places via the “River of Willingness” that flows through the “Kingdom of Liberty.”

Plan de la Lune de Miel, Bertall, 1845. Translation by CityLab. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris)

The public taste for the cartes galantes died in the middle of the 19th century, but the Précieuses influenced later creators such as Bertall, author of the Plan de la Lune de Miel, or “Map of the Honeymoon.” It was published in a novel written by Honoré de Balzac in 1845. Bertall makes an ironic reference to Mademoiselle de Scudéry at the bottom of his work, writing that it was found in her personal belongings after her death—even though the map was, in reality, an original work. Its central element is a giant bed, advocating for Balzac’s philosophy that “the bed is the whole of marriage,” which Bertall expressed by coming up with crude geographical puns. The sea is called “l’Amer,” as “mer” means “sea” in French, and “amer” means bitterness. On the left-hand side is the “Partie Inexflorée”—a mix between “inexplorée,” meaning “unexplored,” and “deflorée,” relating to the loss of one’s virginity. In other words, “Area not yet deflowered;” slightly less eloquent than Scudéry.

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What Abu Dhabi’s City of the Future Looks Like Now

MASDAR CITY, United Arab Emirates—The driverless electric vehicle that travels the streets of this pilot eco-city is royal blue and vaguely resembles a vintage VW microbus. It glides along at a cautionary speed for three blocks, then reverses direction to do it again, beeping like a microwave oven all the while. One of the many cats roaming the complex watches indifferently.

It’s a lonely exercise, as the streets of Masdar City seem to be occupied mostly by tour groups coming to check out the master-planned clean-tech hub near Abu Dhabi’s international airport. A little more than 10 years old, Masdar City was billed as a showpiece of compact, energy-efficient urban development, strategically located right in the epicenter of the fossil fuel industry.

Beacon of hope, feeble experiment, or fig leaf of green for one of the world’s leading polluters? The question was on the minds of the thousands of urban planners, housing advocates, environmentalists, and national delegates who came to Abu Dhabi in February for the United Nations 10th World Urban Forum, a global summit promoting sustainable and inclusive cities. The biennial meeting, organized by UN-Habitat, concluded on February 13 with a redoubled commitment to a green and equitable future, as mapped out in the Sustainable Development Goals.

A driverless bus on the streets of Masdar City. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Organizers might have anticipated questions about holding a sustainability conference in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE pumps out nearly 25 tons of carbon annually per capita, one of the highest rates in the world, thanks to the staggering energy consumption required for desalinating ocean water, pumping air-conditioning into hermetically sealed buildings, slaking the thirst of golf courses and water fountains, and powering motor vehicles along 10-lane highways.

But the nation has vowed to do better. “Developing the renewable energy sector is a core priority in our efforts to diversify our energy mix and the economy while protecting the environment,” H.E. Dr. Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, said in an interview last year. And Masdar City, along with other interventions like a gleaming metro line in nearby Dubai, is being held up as evidence of this green conversion.

To build Masdar City, the provincial capital put in seed money for the estimated $20 billion cost. The project team, Masdar, a subsidiary of Mubadala Development Company, brought in the British architectural firm Foster + Partners, which boasts impeccable eco-credentials. The vision was for a 2.5-square-mile neighborhood that would be close to carbon neutral, thanks to clean-energy wizardry, LEED-certified building design, and a giant adjacent solar panel farm.

At the entrance of Masdar City, a map of the entire planned development stands. Only a small portion of the complex has been completed. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

Unlike virtually every other part of Abu Dhabi, Masdar City is made for walking, with narrow streets in a traditional grid of short blocks and low-rise buildings packed in close together—a pocket of Greenwich Village-style urbanism amid low-slung gated mansions, superblocks, and tall buildings on podiums. Withering desert heat is countered via natural ventilation and misting; a cooling wind tower, a feature of the early Bedouin encampments in the area, rises up from the central public square, which is festooned with the work of local artists.

The problem is, there aren’t many pedestrians to enjoy all the friendliness. The 4,000 office workers in the renewable energy startups arrayed around the property pop out for an espresso now and again, but the 1,300 residents seem invisible. (The original plan called for a population of 50,000.) It reminded me of the prototype Chinese eco-city of Tianjin, which is similarly lightly occupied.

To be fair, only phase one of Masdar City has been completed, so the entire utopia is little more than one full city block in Midtown Manhattan. There’s no shame in starting small to demonstrate feasibility: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 showed millions the wonders of electricity, and a way of life changed.

But current reality keeps imposing in jarring ways. The only way to get to Masdar City is by car; across from the front entrance, every space is taken in several football fields’ worth of surface parking (I was assured that was temporary). The big-box store Carrefour—the French equivalent of Walmart—occupies a prime parcel.

One of Masdar City’s many resident cats stretches in the sun. (Anthony Flint/CityLab)

There is talk of scaling back the ambitious “personal rapid transit” system—a small fleet of driverless pods that ferry people around underground, leaving the streets car-free. (That’s the reason the whole fledgling city is elevated on a podium.) Meanwhile, the light rail line, part of the promised Abu Dhabi metro connecting the area, the airport, and locations in the city center, appears to be years away.

For a Masdar City tourist, an Uber ride in an air-conditioned white Lexus it was. Visiting is like having a kale salad for lunch but reverting to a Big Mac and fries for dinner.

Meanwhile, at the World Urban Forum, there was a lot of talk about a “just transition” to a post-carbon future, incorporating fair treatment and access to opportunity for all residents of any city. So another question is whether this region can label itself as sustainable without addressing the fortunes of the millions of foreign-born workers in Gulf states who have few rights.

It’s a slow turning, to be sure. Different societies are on different tracks; people still smoke indoors here. Still, one wonders how powerful it would be if the kingdom went all-in on sustainability—things tend to happen fast once the emirs set a goal, in a way that Robert Moses could appreciate. Witness the trillions of cubic feet of sand that have been pumped to create new land in the ocean across the UAE.

Masdar City isn’t expected to be built out until as late as 2030. Finishing it would send a big signal. Then again, other nations that have recently put the brakes on their transition to a post-carbon future, aren’t in much of a position to tell anyone else to hurry up.

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What Redlining Had to Do With the 2008 Financial Crisis

At a Georgetown University forum in September 2008, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was asked about the major economic story of the day: the roots of the exploding global financial crisis. This was the month that Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy and the federal government had placed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into conservatorship. What was behind the bust?

Bloomberg’s answer: The implosion of the nation’s housing market was the result of the prohibition of redlining, the discriminatory practice by which lenders denied African-American homebuyers access to loans in the same neighborhoods where white homeowners lived. “It all started back when there was a lot of pressure on banks to make loans to everyone,” Bloomberg said. “And once you started pushing in that direction, banks started making more and more loans where the credit of the person buying the house wasn’t as good as you would like.”

Bloomberg is now a Democratic candidate for president, and his campaign is working to reframe the former mayor’s comments, which the Associated Press resurfaced on February 12. The story arrived as Bloomberg tried to contain fallout from the revelation of a speech he made in 2015 defending the New York Police Department’s racist stop-and-frisk policy; he released a new statement apologizing for the policy on February 11. Campaign spokesperson Stu Loeser told the AP that, as mayor, Bloomberg fought predatory lending, and that as a candidate he has a plan to expand homeownership opportunities for African American buyers. CityLab reached out to the Bloomberg campaign and will update this story with any new comments.

But fair housing experts are pointing out that Bloomberg’s past understanding of the roots of the financial crisis matters a great deal now, since the next person to occupy the White House may be responsible for rewriting fair lending rules. And his comments point to enduring myths about race and responsibility—assumptions that both predate the financial crisis and persist today.

(Disclosure: CityLab was recently acquired by Bloomberg LP. Michael Bloomberg is the company’s founder and majority owner.)

“I think that Bloomberg’s comments are a kind of cynical way of shifting blame back onto communities that were most victimized by the unchecked practices within the banking and real estate industries in the late 1990s and through the early aughts until the crisis exploded,” says Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professor at Princeton University and author of Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, in an email.

Bloomberg was hardly alone in his conviction that unqualified minority homebuyers triggered the financial crisis by being so susceptible to predatory lenders: That idea took root on Wall Street even as the meltdown was in process, according to historians.

The facts of the financial crisis, however, don’t fit an account that puts the blame on minority buyers or fair-lending reforms. More than half of the subprime mortgages originated between 1998 and 2006 were loans for refinancing, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a grassroots organization working to end discrimination in lending. Fewer than 10 percent of subprime loan originations went to first-time homebuyers.

“When people were looking for answers for why mortgages seemed to be falling into default at the rate they were, there were corners of the financial community that had a ready narrative about creditworthiness,” says Nathan Connolly, director of the Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship Program at Johns Hopkins University.

The foreclosure crisis dealt tremendous damage to black and Latino neighborhoods. But white investors were disproportionately responsible for foreclosures in minority neighborhoods, according to a 20112 paper from John Gilderbloom at the University of Louisville and Gregory Squires at George Washington University. Their research shows that, in Louisville, there were approximately 2,000 foreclosure sales each year in 2007 and 2008. This figure breaks down to roughly 39 foreclosures in black communities (measured as census tracts) compared to about 20 foreclosures in white communities. Yet on average, 15 of the foreclosures in black communities happened on properties owned by non-occupant white investors, while white communities saw on average just two foreclosures on investor properties.

The bipartisan U.S. Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission also concluded that fair-lending regulations were not to blame for the financial crisis (with one dissenting conservative saying otherwise). Bank of America’s then-chief executive Brian Moynihan defended fair lending law.

Still, commentators at Fox News and The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page often insisted that lax standards that encouraged uncreditworthy minority borrowers were to blame. Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes and former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey propped up an astroturfed site, AngryRenters.com, that claimed to represent the voice of renters infuriated with mortgage bailout efforts. Fox Business’s Neil Cavuto said that “loaning to minorities and risky borrowers is a disaster.”

“It was a myth that tore around the country like wildfire,” says National Community Reinvestment Coalition CEO Jesse Van Tol. “It was a myth heavily promoted by a group of fringe conservatives who wanted to promote a narrative that something other than market forces caused the financial crisis.”

The Community Reinvestment Act, the 1977 banking reform law that ended redlining, remains a target of ire among conservatives and big lending institutions. The Trump administration has proposed changes to the rule that would streamline and vastly simplify what banks are required to do in order to meet fair lending standards. Civil rights advocates warn that Treasury is designing reforms that would water down the law.

Discriminatory lending practices did not end after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, a cornerstone of civil rights law passed after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Lenders in California in the late 1970s would write “COLORED” backward on mortgage applications—“DEROLOC”—in order to flag them for denials, Connolly says. Even today, more than 40 years after the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, black homeownership rates are dismal. African Americans have rarely had the combination of living wages and non-predatory mortgages to support homeownership.

Another related myth informs Bloomberg’s worldview, or at least as he expressed it during the financial crisis, Connolly says—that credit scores convey an objective truth about renters or owners. Here Bloomberg has an opportunity, even in light of his gaffe, to embrace policies that will undo the “mythology of credit,” he adds. (In January, Bloomberg outlined his plan to boost black homeownership in part by pushing lenders to change their credit-score models.)

In the decades that followed the end of redlining, Taylor notes, lawmakers weakened the regulations meant to protect black communities from speculation and predatory practices. That made historically marginalized communities more vulnerable to predatory practices that emerged specifically to target these renters and owners.

“All of these factors would contribute to the notion that these were places that could be considered ‘risky’ and with risk came the supposed colorblind pretext that Black buyers should be treated differently: higher interest rates, more expensive loan products and all of the other tools of what I refer to as ‘predatory inclusion’ into the conventional real estate market,” Taylor says by email.

More than a decade out from the financial crisis, myths about its cause still endure. As do myths about work, welfare, safe neighborhoods, and credit risks. Wall Street is still susceptible to many of these myths. “The notion of the undeserving poor,” says Connolly, “migrated directly into the notion of the undeserving buyer.”

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Britain’s Bold New Plan for High-Speed Rail

While the speed and frequency of Britain’s railways might be the envy of many North Americans, the U.K. still has some way to go before it catches up with the seamless high-speed train services of its continental European neighbors. Following an announcement Tuesday, however, that’s set to change. A controversial high-speed rail project was green-lighted by the U.K. government this week that would connect Britain’s four largest metros.

With the line’s first stage to Birmingham approved in 2017—then put on hold by the government last summer—the high-speed initiative already has a long history of controversy behind it, and has faced accusations of excessive cost and prioritizing Londoners’ needs over those of northerners. But if the project is executed right, it could nudge people away from not just the highways, but also some popular domestic flight routes.

The 330 miles of new high-speed railway, referred to as HS2 and championed yesterday by Prime Minister Johnson, would connect London with Birmingham and then go onwards in two branches to the northern cities of Manchester and Leeds, on trains capable of speeds of up to 250 miles per hour. While the use of the fastest tracks all the way has not yet been fully confirmed, high-speed rail could revolutionize north-south travel in England, shaving an hour off the journey time between London and Manchester and tripling the current capacity of trains along the route.

(Marie Patino)

HS2 would only be Britain’s second high-speed link, after the Eurostar service from London to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. Criticism of the project stretches back more than a decade.

There are several grounds for protesting the line. In a country where the capital tends to get the lion’s share of resources, many northerners have wondered why a super-fast link to London was approved before a project to improve east-west rail service between cities in Northern England, a region they believe is in more urgent need of rail improvement. Environmental protesters have also fought plans to carve the high-speed track through protected woodlands and vulnerable habitats (while nonetheless rerouting slightly to avoid a golf course). On top of this, many people have seen the ballooning budget and started to worry that the new link is little more than a state-subsidized gravy train.

There are strong arguments, nonetheless, that HS2 will deliver benefits, both to the environment and to travelers who don’t have London as their final destination. By moving long-distance north-south traffic onto the new high-speed link, the project will free up space to increase train frequency on other parts of the network, which are currently working (and just about managing) at close to capacity. And while tree-planting exercises cannot fully make up for the loss of ancient trees, the link could help to deliver massive carbon savings for the U.K.

That’s because increasing train speeds and capacity could slash road traffic and trim some air traffic, too. Train travel will become a more attractive option when the London-to-Manchester journey time almost halves, from 2 hours 8 minutes to 1 hour 8 minutes. With onward journeys on existing non-high-speed tracks to Northeast England and Scotland also shortening, train journeys from London to Edinburgh and Glasgow would also drop markedly (to three hours, 38 minutes each) if the track is built to its fullest proposed extent, encouraging more travelers onto the rails and away from what are currently popular flight routes. Some estimates suggest that HS2 could help the U.K. cut back as much as 600,000 tons of carbon emissions over the next 60 years.

That savings, however, could be offset by other policy decisions. Already, there are suggestions that Prime Minister Johnson may be pushing HS2 as a means to expand Birmingham Airport as a terminal for London, a plan that would allow him to avoid an expansion of Heathrow Airport unpopular with the Conservative Party’s base in the London exurbs. That expansion might well cut into any carbon savings, but for now, the U.K.’s transit network looks set to become notably faster, slicker and cleaner.

It won’t do so in a hurry, however, and financial obstacles remain. High-speed services will, at the last estimate, start to run between London and Birmingham any time between 2028 and 2031, while services to Manchester and Leeds may not begin until as late as 2040. The cost of completion, meanwhile, could be astronomical. Government documents leaked recently suggest the budget could rise as high as 106 billion pounds ($137 billion), a huge jump from the initial 2011 estimate of 32.7 billion pounds, even if you take inflation into account. Aware of the difficulties of securing support for this kind of sum, the government is already suggesting that trains might in fact run a little slower after Birmingham, a choice that could cut costs but inflame fears that the north is still getting a raw deal.

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Voices of 100%: A Long Island Town’s Ambitious Plan to Protect its Coast and Procure Clean Energy — Episode 97 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with John Bouvier, a town council member of Southampton, New York. The two discuss setting ambitious goals, the unique challenges coastal communities face, and how Southampton’s work is driven by both technical experts and community stakeholders.… Read More

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The Upzoning of Nebraska

On February 4, the battle over single-family homes came to Nebraska. A state legislative committee heard arguments about a number of bills designed to lower housing costs by lifting local bans on duplex homes, triplexes, townhouses and other options in cities across the state.

This upzoning push looks similar to both the Virginia proposal that died in committee in January, and California’s State Bill 50, which has been defeated several times in Sacramento. Officials in Maryland, Washington, and other states are currently weighing similar zoning reforms. The efforts thus far have tended to trigger pitched battles between affordability advocates and status-quo-defenders over the prospect of gentrification, the perils of density and other hot-button housing issues.

But things are different in Nebraska. So far, the debate around the Missing Middle Housing Act hasn’t generated anywhere near the same heat as corresponding laws in other states. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Matt Hansen, says that the hearing of the Urban Affairs Committee saw 14 people testify about the bill: 10 in support, one in opposition, and three neutral. “We’ve been reaching out to housing groups, renters groups, cities and municipalities,” says Hansen, who represents the state’s 26th District, in northeast Lincoln. “I’ve not had very much negative feedback.”

In a sense, the Nebraska legislature is looking to win the battle before the war begins. State lawmakers are now tackling zoning and density as well as parking minimums, mixed-use developments, and low-income housing units—divisive issues that often lead to organized resistance campaigns at the neighborhood, city and state levels. The same conflicts are present in Nebraska, but lawmakers hope that action now can stave off the entrenched politics that frame the crisis in rental affordability on the coasts.

Nebraska could very well become the second state in the nation, after Oregon, to pass some kind of statewide law on zoning. The stakes are no less critical for the Cornhusker State, lawmakers say: Single-family homes predominate in Nebraska’s largest cities, and local rules that prohibit the production of more housing are leading to rising costs. It doesn’t look like the affordability crunch in gentrifying Oakland or the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., perhaps—but those are fates that Nebraska lawmakers hope to avoid.

“We need more of it, whether you call it affordable housing or workforce housing,” Hansen says. “We’re growing all across the state at a rate where we’re having trouble keeping up with the number of [housing] units needed.”

Historically low-cost cities in the South and the Midwest are starting to look like the latest front in the national fight for affordable housing. In Omaha, the price of single-family homes shot up 41 percent from 2012 to 2019; in Lincoln, the increase was 34 percent. Smaller towns have also witnessed appreciable gains in housing costs, according to Emily Hamilton and Salim Further, research fellows at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who provided written testimony in the hearing before the Nebraska Unicameral legislature.

Apartments are hard to come by in Lincoln, according to Cassey Lottman, a software engineer and organizer with the local tenant advocacy group Renters Together who ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat last year on an affordable housing platform. But single-family homes are hard to come by, too, she says. In desirable neighborhoods near the jobs that make Lincoln an attractive place to live, construction is rare, limited to the occasional infill project. Instead, growth in Lincoln (and other Nebraska cities) tends to happen on the outskirts, contributing to sprawl.

Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha, is marked by sharp contrasts. Its central neighborhoods of Dundee and Fairacres are home to billionaire Warren Buffett and Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, whose father founded TD Ameritrade. North Omaha and South Omaha feature pockets of concentrated poverty. The city is growing—the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area expects to reach a population of 1 million by 2023—but it is not growing equitably. State Senator Megan Hunt, who represents Nebraska’s 8th District, says the city lacks townhomes, duplexes and other density-increasing housing options. “We know this kind of housing is really popular,” Hunt says. “We just don’t have enough of it.”

The Missing Middle Housing Act is not exactly a preemption bill, like the one attempted recently in Virginia. Nebraska’s bill would not strip local municipalities of their zoning authority; it would merely compel cities with a population of 5,000 or more to update their zoning codes to allow duplex, triplex, and quadplex homes and rowhouses. The bill doesn’t ban single-family homes, and it doesn’t prevent local authorities from writing building codes that regulate the size and siting of homes.

Another proposal, the Density Bonus and Inclusionary Housing Act, would authorize more-dense housing in developments that set aside a certain percentage of units for low-income and very-low-income households. The bill, from Nebraska State Senator Justin Wayne, also prevents cities from setting higher mandatory parking requirements from developments that receive a density bonus. And developments that include child-care facilities or commercial uses are eligible for even greater density bonuses under the bill.

Several senators were unable to attend the February 4 hearing, so the committee didn’t convene an executive session; movement on the bills could be coming as soon as this month. Maybe it’s the fact that the Nebraska legislature is unicameral or that its largest cities are still relatively small. Or it could be that median home values haven’t crested $200,000 in Omaha or Lincoln. Whatever the reason, these bills might pass without the protests, op-eds, and the rest of the circus that housing proposals often summon. Nebraska urbanists are eager to see that happen.

“What I want for Lincoln is more choice,” Lottman says. “If you want to rent, there should be a place for you.”

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Nextdoor Wants to Be a One-Stop Shop for Police

In September, a man carrying a machete and a crowbar walked into the Chapel of the Holy Hill in Sedona, Arizona, and started destroying things. He turned out to be a follower of QAnon, the far-right conspiracy group behind the 2016 “Pizzagate” shooting, as The Daily Beast later reported. His vandalism rampage was captured in photos and video by tourists; hours after the incident, the alleged attacker was arrested by police.

How did the cops close in so quickly? Sedona police chief Charles Husted credits Nextdoor, the neighbor-to-neighbor social-media platform. Within 20 minutes of the incident, Husted posted an “urgent alert” with a photo and description of the suspect on Sedona’s Nextdoor account. That post swiftly circulated through the city as neighbors shared it, reposted it on other social media platforms, and sent it to their friends. Soon, a shopkeeper who’d been sent the post by her mom realized she’d seen the man in questionand called 911. “It was perfect,” Husted said.

This wasn’t the first time Husted leaned on Nextdoor in his police work. As an officer at the Sacramento Police Department from 2013 to 2019, he’d used the platform to keep the community informed and build trust. When he moved to Sedona last year, he immediately pushed the department to create a Nextdoor account, he says. And a few months ago, he started beta-testing the company’s newest product: a mobile app tailored for local governments.

That’s how Husted posted his Sedona-wide alert for the machete-wielding QAnon assailant—right through his smartphone.

The new Nextdoor for Public Agencies app, which launched publicly on February 12, enables police and fire departments, public schools, and City Hall agencies to post updates, push out alerts geo-targeted to reach specific neighborhoods, and read their messages on the go. “It allows the public agency folks to be in the field, be engaged in an incident, and share info quickly as needed,” said Husted. He calls the new app a “game changer.”

For Nextdoor, the feature brings another tool to what has proved to be one of the social network’s most compelling use cases: crime monitoring. Launched in 2011 as a Facebook-style social network built on actual physical proximity and real-world relationships, Nextdoor is a variation on neighborhood listservs and homeowners’ groups, offering a digital stage for the holiday celebrations, sidewalk sales, lost-dog alerts, and the random grievances of urban and suburban living. City agencies equipped with public Nextdoor accounts can also publish community event alerts, deliver extreme weather warnings, and launch public education campaigns. But the site is also well known as a clearinghouse for neighborhood drama: Nextdoor’s many eyes-on-the-street fill the site with reports of car break-ins, suspicious characters, and other local-level threats.

Such citizen reports are increasingly being directed to the responsible municipal agencies. Nextdoor’s “Forward to Police” feature, for example, was introduced in 2016, allowing users in participating jurisdictions to send crime and public safety reports directly to law enforcement.

With the launch of this new app, Nextdoor is making its alignment with public institutions more explicit. “Neighbors turn to Nextdoor every day to find trusted, relevant information about what’s happening where they live,” said Tatyana Mamut, Nextdoor’s head of product, in a statement. “Now, our agency partners can send information to their constituents with the tap of a button anywhere and anytime—even when they are away from their desk, after hours, or in the field.”

For years, public agencies using Nextdoor requested such a feature, Mamut told CityLab. The company’s new partnership push also reflects a broader and more controversial trend: Private tech companies are forging stronger relationships with police departments.

Nextdoor is already a valuable social media ally for public agencies, Mamut says. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, agencies don’t have to first collect followers to get their message out, and Nextdoor allows them to target their posts to specific neighborhoods. Site members are prompted to confirm their address via postcard or landline, so agencies have more assurance that they’re sending and receiving relevant info to and from real people who live where they say they do.

Updates about development projects, safety, and preparedness get a lot of engagement on the site, Mamut says, along with missing person alerts, community meeting times, and school closing announcements. But it’s hard to ignore the overall prominence of public safety chatter. Yesterday, for example, the first post on the Crime and Safety page for San Francisco’s Noe Valley described an encounter with a man who rang her doorbell “under the guise of looking for someone named ‘Wendy,’” who she felt was “casing the house.”Another post stoked suspicion about a man strolling up the street, “taking photos of all the license plates of the parked cars.” There’s a blurry picture of a guy with a backpack, and a question: “Any idea what he’s up to?” Some neighbors accompany their posts with photographs of suspects or video clips from Ring doorbells, and pleas to call 911 if the perpetrators are spotted again.

As a recent Atlantic feature by Lauren Smiley detailed, Nextdoor can inspire informal neighborhood watch groups: The story recounts how several San Francisco homeowners banded together via the site to nab an alleged package snatcher. But Nextdoor has played down the role its crime-spotting features play. Sarah Friar, Nextdoor’s CEO, told Smiley that only 5 percent of posts are slotted into the app’s Crime and Safety category. Mamut says Nextdoor’s intent is to facilitate the sharing of “positive, engaging” good news, not just reports of local misdeeds.

Police officers are unable to view any of these posts through their department view of the site, which means they can’t scan the platform for public safety concerns like a mini-blotter (unless they they make personal accounts). But there are other ways of getting in touch. Police departments can receive direct messages from users, and non-emergency numbers and the street address for the local police department are prominently featured on many communities’ Crime and Safety pages. When users post about a crime on the platform, neighbors are usually quick to encourage the poster to formally report it, Mamut says.

With the help of Forward to Police, it’s easier for users to heed those suggestions. In neighborhoods where the feature is activated, any post uploaded onto Nextdoor’s Crime and Safety tab can be sent directly to a local police department’s Nextdoor message inbox—but only by the original poster. The platform’s new Public Agencies app expands the Forward to Police feature by allowing departments to access these messages from mobile devices.

“This feature is just streamlining all of that and allowing, with a very simple ‘click click,’ to forward that post to the police,” Mamut said. “We take the approach that proactive safety and preparedness and positivity is a better way for law enforcement to engage with local communities than just reactively, when something bad happens.”

Mamut wouldn’t share how many police departments in the 1,000-plus cities and 11 countries worldwide in which Nextdoor operates are currently using Forward to Police. All departments are eligible, and several California jurisdictions, including Ventura, Chico, Glendale, and Los Altos, appear to have activated the feature; so have Mobile, Alabama, and Richmond Heights, Missouri. DCist reports that Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department formalized its relationship with the app in January.

Emily Graves, a community outreach specialist for Ventura’s police department, says that she checks the agency’s Nextdoor inbox frequently and usually receives one to two messages per day. Most concern suspicious activity or loitering, and she rarely sends officers to the scene just off of a Nextdoor complaint. “If someone were to send us a message in reference to loitering or a homelessness issue, we’d give a few tips on how to respond and then encourage them to call the non-emergency number,” she said. “We do follow up on everything people send us.”

The effectiveness of Nextdoor’s use in community policing isn’t clear. In its marketing materials, the company draws a correlation between department platform use and crime reduction. “In just one year, [the Sacramento Police Department] grew their Nextdoor membership from 10,000 to over 20,000 residents, which was accompanied by a 7.7% reduction in crime and a 30% decrease in shootings,” a case study document reads. The stat appears to come from a 2013 article, in which Sacramento’s then-chief of police Sam Somers said that the crime drop “is partly a result of new crime-prevention programs that began this year,” including Nextdoor. Carl Chan, the Sacramento Police Department’s Public Information Officer, said this week that Nextdoor serves a valuable public engagement role. “In general, our crime stats, they’re fluid, and there’s a lot of things that affect them,” he said. “It would be hard to say it’s solely because of Nextdoor.”

Civil rights and privacy advocates have expressed concerns that Nextdoor’s growing integration with law enforcement could fuel more “broken windows”-style policing, spurred by amateur police reports that use the language of a social media post and reflect a skewed vision of a city. Despite efforts to tamp down on racial profiling using algorithmic moderation, Nextdoor is still criticized for facilitating vague, racially coded, or racist posting.

Streamlining the process of crime reporting down to a click can also end up escalating minor complaints that wouldn’t otherwise be deemed worthy of police involvement, says Rachel Thomas, the founding director of the Center for Applied Data Ethics at the University of San Francisco. As routine police checks can turn deadly, the stakes of calling even a “non-emergency” law enforcement hotline can be high. “I’m concerned about the general trend of these murky or opaque private-public partnerships with police or other core government services that were traditionally more publicly managed,” she said.

Chris Gilliard, an English professor at Macomb Community College who researches digital privacy, makes a similar point. “Surveillance often encourages ‘solutions’ that far outstrip the level of the infraction,” he recently wrote in Urban Omnibus. “[T]he existence of footage—the fact that people have potentially actionable evidence they feel compelled to use—turns a minor instance of vandalism into a situation involving law enforcement.”

Such concerns have been fanned by news that Amazon’s Ring doorbell camera service has partnerships with more than 750 police departments across the country. In August 2019, Vice reported that Amazon has been helping officers view Ring footage without warrants. Amazon makes it easy for police to ask Ring owners to send along recordings, GovTech reported, regardless of whether the subjects being filmed have offered their consent.

“When we get into the private world … Fourth Amendment protections might disappear,” said Brian Hofer, the chair of Oakland’s Privacy Advisory Commission and the executive director of the nonprofit group Secure Justice.

Clips from Ring doorbell devices are a Nextdoor staple, but the company has no plans to develop its own camera hardware, Mamut says. “We take our members’ privacy very, very seriously,” she said. “We are committed to making sure that neighborhoods are strong and resilient and that neighbors get to choose what info they share.”

Husted says that he understands the worry that using Nextdoor might encourage the over-reporting and enforcement of smaller crimes. During his time in Sacramento and now in Sedona, he saw how the platform helped restore confidence in local law enforcement among residents who were “tired of calling dispatch and having officers take a long time to get there, if at all” in response to quality-of-life crimes.

He stresses that Nextdoor is good for more than just calling the police. He’s been able to use it for fostering better community-police relations, and for better inter-community relationships. ”Not all things that get reported as problems in the community have to be a police response: There are other strategies that can be brought to bear,” he said. “It’s really empowering people to take some ownership in their space.”

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