Designing the First Full-Time Human Habitat on the Moon

The first humans landed on the moon in 1969. Fifty years later, humans are figuring out how to live there.

Radiation, lack of breathable air, generating energy, and relying on rockets to transport building materials are among the challenges for humans settling on the moon. But it is possible to find solutions to these challenges, according to SOM Design Partner Colin Koop.

His firm has released a design for the first full-time human habitat on the lunar surface, in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). SOM is master planning, designing, and engineering the settlement.

“It is really rethinking what it means to settle somewhere from the ground up,” Koop told CityLab. “You can almost rely on nothing that we understand about how humans settle land on planet Earth. You have to rely almost exclusively on new ideas.”

For example, the settlement would be clustered close to the crater’s water-ice deposits so that water from the permanently shadowed depressions near the South Pole would be extracted to create breathable air and rocket propellant for transportation and industrial activity. Modules would be able to inflate and expand for future growth while providing protection from extreme temperatures, projectiles, regolith dust, and radiation. Koop said the reason for planning the moon settlement now is because “we’re right at the cusp, technologically speaking, to be able to do this for the first time.”

There could also be tourism to the moon village as an idea for long-term revenue generation. However, the village would be primarily intended for researchers to further explore the Moon and, as a press release notes, to “serve as a stepping stone to … Mars and beyond.”

The masterplan drawing for the moon village. (Image © SOM | Slashcube GmbH)

“I think the primary spirit of the idea is one that defined humanity since the dawn of time, which is to deepen our understanding of the natural world,” Koop said.

But in popular culture, space colonies have embodied an escape from earthly problems. Movies like Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy have let countless teenagers and adults get their minds off of their lives on Earth. Beyond fiction, the idea of human habitats on another planet have also garnered attention during times when people feared what would happen on Earth. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, researchers at MIT, along with other academics from around the world, concluded that our planet would reach its carrying capacity sometime in the 21st century, meaning resources would not be enough for the population. They predicted a “massive collapse of global society,” as described in an episode of 99 Percent Invisible. Gerard (Gerry) O’Neill, a physicist, suggested extensive human settlements in space as a solution. O’Neill even got the support of NASA, but ultimately NASA wasn’t willing to spend the billions of dollars needed for the project at the time.

Framing space exploration as a way to save or protect Earth hasn’t stopped. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, said last year, “I think a moon base and a Mars base that could help regenerate life back here on Earth would be really important and to get that done before a possible World War Three.”

New technologies, which continue to develop, make it more feasible and less costly for humans to settle on the moon. Only time will tell if a future settlement on the moon would allow average citizens to live there like in the space colonies of O’Neill’s dreams.

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The Many Lives of Notre-Dame

As television crews captured the fiery pillar of smoke billowing from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral, the collective feeling seemed to be curiously personal. Reaching beyond religious and national boundaries, so many people spoke of an overwhelming sense of grief. from complete destruction. Yet Paris awoke to find the iconic shell surviving, along with the twin belfry towers, the rose windows, the great organ, and relics such as the Crown of Thorns. This is a testament to the ingenuity of builders over 850 years ago as well as the bravery of firefighters today.  

A catastrophe is gradually being recast, unconvincingly, as a victory. Macron’s rallying words of unity and destiny have temporarily given respite to the beleaguered president. The radiant cross that survived within the charred interior offered a symbol of hope and even resurrection. The recovery, ambitiously set for five years, is aided by well-publicized donations from billionaires. Yet difficult questions remain. One is why the cathedral was left in such dire need of preservation before the fire (which occurred during renovations). Another is the matter of its authenticity. Inevitably, a different incarnation of Notre-Dame will arise, even if it is as close a facsimile as possible; the old Ship of Theseus dilemma that entirely rebuilt cities like Dresden faced remains. Perhaps there isn’t a completely authentic version of Notre-Dame because there have been several Notre-Dames, evolving throughout the centuries. With the announcement of the spire design being opened to competition, there is a real danger of the rebuild being botched and unsympathetic, either in terms of historical pastiche or jarring hyper-modern intervention. At the time of Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Notre-Dame, the inspector-general of historical monuments, Prosper Mérimée warned, “A restoration may be more disastrous for a monument than the ravages of centuries.” It is a lesson that remains apt.

Victor Hugo wrote his tale to celebrate Notre-Dame but also as a lament and a challenge, “The church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.” Ignorance, malice, and dogmatism threaten countless structures around the world. Ancient mosques are being demolished in China. A series of fires have devastated black churches in Louisiana. The World Heritage Committee lists 54 iconic historical sites as being in danger through excessive development, neglect, and conflict including the Minaret of Jam, the settlements of Potosi, Timbuktu, Hatra, Ghadamès, the Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. If Notre-Dame is a deep and ever-changing text, it is a simply a chapter in a much wider story that demands our attention.  

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CityLab Daily: Smaller Cities Gain Traction in Big Tech

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What We’re Following

Hub cap: From the Bay Area and Seattle to the Boston-New York-D.C. corridor, America’s leading tech hubs have become increasingly expensive, unaffordable, and mired in a kind of tech backlash. This has fed speculation that tech companies might distribute their very mobile jobs across cheaper, up-and-coming tech ecosystems like Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Miami.

But the latest data from Indeed, the job listings website, finds that established tech hubs continue to dominate. Eight leading regions account for about a third of all high-tech job postings, a share that increased from 2017 to 2018. In fact, Silicon Valley still makes up a quarter of the site’s high-tech job postings, followed by the D.C. metro region, which is poised to see an influx of tech workers with the arrival of Amazon’s HQ2. Today on CityLab, Richard Florida considers if the tech sector is reaching an inflection point where emerging smaller hubs might see the market break their way: America’s Tech Hubs Still Dominate, But Some Smaller Cities Are Rising

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

How Historic Ellicott City Plans to Survive the Next Flood

After catastrophic storms in 2016 and 2018, the Maryland mill town has five flood control plans. But it faces hard choices on how to avoid future disasters.

Linda Poon

What D.C.’s Go-Go Showdown Reveals About Gentrification

A neighborhood debate over music swiftly became something bigger, and louder: a cry for self-determination from a community that is struggling to be heard.

Tanvi Misra

Photographing the Trumpian Urbanism of Atlantic City

Brian Rose’s new book uses the deeply troubled New Jersey city as a window into how a developer-turned-president operates.

Mark Byrnes

Segregation Is Preventable. Congress Just Isn’t Trying.

Again and again, federal efforts to promote integration have been whittled down almost to nothing.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, Halley Potter, and Kimberly Quick

Civic Crowdfunding Can Reduce the Risk of ‘Bikelash’

This collective fundraising technique can help defuse anti-cyclist sentiment before it dooms protected bike lanes and other new infrastructure.

Kate Gasparro

Avant Garden

Ruth Stanford’s “From the Ground Up” installation in the 2018 ‘Golden Hour’ exhibition at Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. (Courtesy of Oakland Cemetery)

Here’s a place you may not expect to find art: the cemetery. These sprawling spaces were once common places for art in many early American cities, before they established parks and museums. Now, as historic burial grounds run out of space and have fewer visitors to older graves, their custodians hope to revive this tradition. Through artists-in-residence programs, cinema series, nighttime performances, and more modern memorials, these spaces hope to change their relationship to the living, and to the communities around them. Today on CityLab: Why Old American Cemeteries Are Showcasing New Art

What We’re Reading

The bus of the future is coming at 11 miles per hour (Curbed)

More affluent neighborhoods are creating their own school districts (Vox)

How much slower would the U.S. grow without immigration? In many places, a lot (New York Times)

Two artists built a 32-acre queer playground in middle America (W Magazine)

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

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America’s Tech Hubs Still Dominate, But Some Smaller Cities Are Rising

Is high-tech America reaching an inflection point?

The nation’s leading tech hubs in the Bay Area, Seattle, and across the Boston-New York-D.C. corridor have become increasingly expensive, unaffordable, and embroiled in a deepening backlash against big tech. This has led to growing speculation—and increasing action by some tech leaders—around the “Rise of the Rest,” an effort to invest in and bolster the tech ecosystems of up-and-coming hubs like Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Miami, to name just a few.

New research by Jed Kolko, chief economist of job listings website, finds that America’s established tech hubs continue to dominate high-tech employment. His study examines tech jobs in the country’s 51 largest metros (those with more than one million people), based on 2018 data from job postings to, and census employment data from 2015 to 2017.

San Jose, in the heart of Silicon Valley, has the largest concentration of high-tech jobs, which made up nearly of a quarter of all its job postings in 2018. The Washington, D.C., metro was next with 15 percent, then Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore, Raleigh (in the Research Triangle), Austin, and Boston.

New York’s share of tech job postings ranks 10th, but New York has a diverse economy. “Tech doesn’t stand out in New York as it does in those other hubs where tech is a higher share of the local job market,” Kolko told me via email. “The geography of tech employment could differ from the geography of venture funding—with venture funding skewed more toward places like New York that already have a massive financial sector.”

These leading hubs also saw strong growth in tech jobs. The proportion of high-tech jobs grew 10 percent in San Jose, 9 percent in Austin, and 6 percent in Boston. Raleigh and San Francisco had slightly smaller increases, and Seattle saw no change. Washington, D.C., and Baltimore faced declines, though the cities still rank in the top eight of tech job share. Plus, D.C. may rebound as the “winner” of Amazon’s HQ2 sweepstakes.

(Jed Kolko)

America’s eight leading tech hubs account for about a third of all high-tech job postings, a share that increased slightly between 2018 and 2017. In large metros, tech accounts for 6.6 percent of all job postings, double the 3.3 percent share in mid-size metros with between 250,000 and a million people. This, Kolko notes, is a reversal of the previous trend where tech jobs were spreading to other parts of the country.

Despite countless attempts to create the “next Silicon Valley,”America’s leading tech hubs have different specializations and jobs structures. As Kolko notes, “[i]n San Francisco, San Jose, Austin, and Seattle, more than half of local tech jobs were at technology businesses rather than at workplaces like banks, manufacturing companies, or government agencies.” The Bay Area also has an outsized concentration of jobs in fields like artificial intelligence and deep-learning. These jobs were ten times more prevalent in San Jose than nationally, Kolko reports. And while private-sector tech firms dominate the Bay Area, government-related tech jobs accounted for a much greater share of tech jobs in Baltimore and D.C.

Washington, D.C.—Amazon’s choice for HQ2—is the polar opposite of Seattle in terms of types of tech jobs. In fact, as Kolko points out, the two are the most dissimilar tech hubs. “If Amazon had wanted a metro like Seattle for its major expansion, the Bay Area would have come closest,” Kolko writes. “And several metros outside the eight hubs, like Portland, Oregon, and San Diego, looked more like Seattle in tech mix than Washington did.”

The top eight tech hubs also lead in their concentration of the most cutting-edge jobs or what Kolko dubs “hot tech”—jobs with high salaries and rapid growth, like data scientist or cloud engineer. San Francisco had the largest concentration of these hot-tech job postings, making up nearly a fifth of all tech job postings, followed closely by nearby San Jose. Boston, Austin, and Seattle, also had large concentrations of hot tech jobs. But Raleigh, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore were either at or below the national average for these hot tech jobs. Hot-tech jobs were also concentrated in large metros, making up 12 percent of tech job postings there, compared to 6 percent in mid-sized metros.

(Jed Kolko)

Where the rest is rising

So what about the “Rise of the Rest?” Kolko finds that there are, in fact, smaller tech hubs growing outside of the dominant cities, to take advantage of lower costs of living, different talent pools, and geographic diversity.

To capitalize on that talent market, startups increasingly locate in college towns like Boulder, Colorado; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina (the other pillar of the Research Triangle); and Trenton, New Jersey (which includes Princeton). Other metros tend to offer other unique industries: Huntsville, Alabama, and Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida, are both military or aerospace hubs. And Fayetteville, Arkansas is home to Walmart and the University of Arkansas.

(Jed Kolko)

“The big takeaway is that the established hubs are maintaining their lead. Plus: fast-growing, high-paying tech jobs are especially concentrated in the top hubs,” Kolko notes. “Other metros really haven’t broken into their ranks,” he said. “Still, there are plenty of opportunities in tech outside these hubs, including in smaller, more affordable metros across the country.”

While the data do not show it yet, high-tech America may be approaching that inflection point. As the late great political economist Mancur Olson liked to remind us, industry leaders—like Pittsburgh in steel or Detroit in automobiles—ultimately sow the seeds of their own demise. They falter and lose their edge largely as a result of their own self-inflicted wounds, what he called “institutional sclerosis.” Today’s emerging hubs provide substantial cost advantages over these established places and appear far more willing to capitalize on opportunities that come their way. Only time will tell.

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

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Conversations With D.C. Uber Drivers Reveal Stress and Debt

In 2016, a group of 40 Washington, D.C., Uber drivers sat down with Georgetown researchers to offer a window into life on the road. Many of them said that they were spiraling into debt; that their wages were constantly fluctuating, often with little notice; that the job threatened their mental and physical health—and that, if given the option, they would keep right on driving.

A report released today, out of Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, includes excerpts of those conversations and findings from surveys taken by the drivers, whose names were changed to protect their identities and their jobs. The report offers only an anecdotal snapshot from a small sample size of drivers, taken during Uber’s earlier days. In the years since the interviews were conducted, the company has hired a new CEO, introduced tipping, and rolled out new driver-friendly promotions and incentives, like an Uber Pro rewards program in 10 cities, and free online education benefits.

“Driver-partners are the heart of our service—and Uber would not be what it is today without them,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “Building on what we’ve already introduced … we’ll continue to improve the experience for and with drivers, every day.”

But a few of the pain points drivers cited in 2016 have held constant, and—by Uber’s own admission in its recent IPO filing—others may only get more painful.

Gigs like Uber driving are advertised as the perfect side hustle, with low barriers to entry and flexible hours. But to start—and keep—working, Uber drivers need a car, gas money, insurance, maintenance, and, if they want top ratings, maybe perks like mints and water bottles. Those things don’t come cheap. The researchers found that, in order to start making money, drivers had to be prepared to spend a lot of it.

Cars themselves were the biggest expense. The research team interviewed Aman, an Ethiopian immigrant who bought a Lincoln Town Car to qualify for Uber’s then-new private car service, Uber Black. To afford it, he took out a $35,000 loan. Then Uber Black “changed a policy about how old cars could be” to qualify, according to the report, and Aman started driving for UberX instead. But the weekly wages weren’t high enough to meet his car payments. Eventually, he filed for bankruptcy.

Four other drivers used Uber’s Xchange rental car program, which at the time connected drivers directly with a bank that offered subprime car leases. After those car payments of $170 a week and Uber’s commission, one driver said she earned only $5 an hour. Another, who paid $138 a week for her car, decided to quit after a year of driving six to seven days a week, finding herself “behind on bills.”

That Xchange program was discontinued in 2017, after the Federal Trade Commission alleged that the company misled drivers about its terms: “[F]rom at least late 2013 through April 2015, drivers who participated in the program paid more than advertised, received worse rates on average than consumers with similar credit scores, and are bound by leases with mileage limits,” according to a blog on the FTC’s website. Now, Uber advertises partnerships with third-party rental services, like Fair, which leases vehicles for not much less: Prices start at $130 a week in most states. In California, Uber offers a Fair promotion, where drivers pay $185 a week, but are able to get that amount back as a credit from Uber if they complete 70 trips that week.

In all, 33 percent of the drivers the research team spoke to in 2016 reported falling into a similar debt trap.

“What struck us during these conversations with drivers, is they didn’t understand the terms of the debt they had taken on,” said Katie J. Wells, the author of the report and a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown’s Kalmanovitz Initiative. “It’s one thing to work a crappy job, it’s another thing to work a risky job, and it’s quite another thing to take on debt in order to maybe get a wage.”

Part of the problem, she found, is that drivers didn’t understand how much money they were actually earning. “It’s really hard to talk about that because it changes every time they change the rules,” said one driver, called Suzanna.

While most drivers interviewed (more than 80 percent) knew how much Uber skimmed off their fares in commission, 38 percent were unclear on the calculation process behind each original fare, and didn’t understand the particulars around insurance and tax filing. This wasn’t just a problem for new drivers, the report says: 70 percent of respondents had been driving for the app for at least seven months.

Half of all drivers interviewed described working on the platform “as a game to be won.” As one driver put it, “It’s the driver trying to outsmart Uber and Uber trying to outsmart the driver.”

In 2018, Uber embarked on “180 Days of Change,” to listen to and address driver concerns. They came out of the project with a new driver app interface, designed with an eye towards transparency. But Uber’s algorithmic calculations are still opaque by design, and they’re constantly changing, says Alex Rosenblat, a tech ethnographer and the author of Uberland. ”[T]his is a workplace characterized by ever-shifting, experimental working conditions,” she told CityLab in an email last month.

Besides the mental toll, drivers shared other difficult experiences—one man said he was assaulted for refusing drugs; another said he was robbed at gunpoint; one woman described “hostile” passengers “talk[ing] trash.” Thirty percent of drivers reported feeling unsafe, and none of the drivers interviewed said they felt they could rely on Uber in an emergency.

Instead, drivers have turned to each other. Ad hoc ride-hail support groups have cropped up in places like New York City, where two Uber and Lyft drivers took their lives within months of each other this year and last year. The drivers Wells interviewed didn’t have that same support system in D.C.: 75 percent of them had never “had a drink or meal with anyone else who had ever driven for Uber.”

Drivers have also turned to other modes of labor organizing. Last month, a coalition called Rideshare Drivers United led ride-hail drivers for both Uber and Lyft in Los Angeles in a 25-hour blackout in protest of Uber’s per-mile pay cuts. (Uber says it lowered rates by 25 percent after raising them by the same amount in September 2018, to align its pay with other ride-hail companies.) But since Uber drivers are considered independent contractors—a classification that the company says is crucial to its financial viability, and that offers drivers more flexibility—they can’t form unions, or strike in the traditional sense.

“The thing is, we don’t have union,” said Aman. “And nobody going to listen to us, so we don’t have anybody, so what can you do? Nothing.”

Despite these rumblings, 45 percent of the drivers interviewed told the researchers that they wanted to continue driving for at least six more months, and half would recommend the platform to a friend. Wells attributes this partly to the rise of on-call scheduling, which makes other non-gig, low-wage jobs even more precarious. At service jobs, shifts are often set by someone else, and determined at the last minute. With Uber, drivers can choose their own hours—unless they’re chasing rush-hour prices or special incentives, which Rosenblat argues can replicate the feeling of on-call scheduling.

“It seems logical why people think it’s an okay risk,” said Wells. “The other thing contributing is that … a lot of these people’s incomes have stagnated—they haven’t seen increases over the past five to ten years, and so they’re looking for extra income.”

Even if drivers haven’t yet left the platform en masse, these findings may matter to Uber as much as they matter to policymakers, because disgruntled drivers are bad for business. As it prepares to IPO, Uber is seeking a $100 billion valuation. In its S-1 filing, which it released publicly last week, the company highlighted driver dissatisfaction as a key “Risk Factor” for investors, while suggesting it may rise as Uber pushes to “reduce Driver incentives to improve our financial performance,” and invest in autonomous cars, pushing human drivers off the road. Uber also expressed concern over future driver protests:

Driver dissatisfaction has in the past resulted in protests by Drivers, most recently in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Such protests have resulted, and any future protests may result, in interruptions to our business. Continued Driver dissatisfaction may also result in a decline in our number of platform users, which would reduce our network liquidity, and which in turn may cause a further decline in platform usage. Any decline in the number of Drivers, consumers, restaurants, shippers, or carriers using our platform would reduce the value of our network and would harm our future operating results.

Cities can help mitigate some of the issues D.C. drivers raised, says Wells, as they are uniquely positioned to regulate Transportation Network Companies. Yet D.C. is lagging. New York City instituted a ride-hail minimum wage this year of $17.22 an hour after expenses, which Wells challenges D.C. to match.

Change may start with getting ridership data from these companies. In 2018, the D.C. Council passed a data-sharing requirement for ride-hailing services operating in the city—but those quarterly statistics can only be requested if they have implications for transportation planning or public safety, not labor; and they’re exempt from Freedom of Information Act Requests, meaning few outside the D.C. government can access them. Instead, Wells proposes creating a new, publicly funded commission convened specifically to study companies like Uber.

“We as a city want to take seriously our role to govern, and doing so means evaluating the impact of these companies on the city,” she said. “Be it the workforce, be it pollution, be it congestion, be it transportation equity.”

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How Historic Ellicott City Plans to Survive the Next Flood

For the past year, the fate of Ellicott City, Maryland, has been trapped in limbo. Between 2011 and 2018, three separate floods have hammered the the 247-year-old mill town outside Baltimore, first from Tropical Storm Lee and then via a lethal pair of “1,000-year storms” that sent water raging down the valley and through Main Street, killing two people in 2016 and one in 2018. The spectacular flooding, which was captured in videos shot by residents and widely shared on social media, caused tens of millions of dollars in damages and turned this sleepy pocket of suburban Howard County into an unlikely global symbol of the uncertainties and dangers that await in a warmer, wetter world.

The severity of the flooding was blamed not only on the growing intensity of climate-change-juiced rainfall events—the twin cloudbursts soaked the town in 6 and 8 inches of water within two hours in 2016 and 2018, respectively—but on housing development patterns that reshaped the area’s hydrology, increasing stormwater runoff and exacerbating the risk of catastrophic downstream inundation.

Despite the urgency, there has been little consensus among county officials, residents, and advocates about what flood mitigation could look like—or whether the town should even rebuild. Now the county is finally laying out concrete options on the table. And the message is clear—if Ellicott City is to survive, part of it must be sacrificed.

An initial plan proposed by former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman called for demolishing 10 buildings in the town’s low-lying historic core, but that plan met with resistance from preservationists and community members, and Kittleman, a Republican, was unseated by Democrat Calvin Ball in the 2018 election. Ball halted his predecessor’s plans and promised to search for less-destructive alternatives.

In a meeting on Wednesday inside a chic home furniture store in the heart of Main Street, Ball announced his five flood mitigation options. All involve demolishing at least four buildings at the lower east end of the street; one calls for six buildings to be torn down. The room would be used for the construction of culverts to carry stormwater from nearby stream channels into the Patapsco River.

In this map of the affected part of Ellicott City, buildings in green are slated for demolition to make way for culverts in the stream (blue) underneath, while those in purple and pink will remain intact. (Howard County)

The proposals represent the second phase of Ball’s Safe and Sound initiative, which he introduced in December. The first phase included more frequent clearing of debris in streams and waterways and the introduction of a flood alert system, which will begin testing within weeks. Meanwhile, the county studied alternatives to razing 10 buildings, a move hailed by preservationists but criticized by some Main Street residents and business owners who say the priority should be public safety.

The five options would cost between $63.5 million to $175 million, and take between four and seven years to complete; they’re expected to reduce the floodwater down to between 2 to 3.6 feet on Main Street. The two most costly variations call for boring underground tunnels to divert water away from Main Street—a scheme once deemed too expensive by officials.

“Each option represents a comprehensive collection of flood mitigation projects that result in less water on Main Street than the previous plan, and put public safety above all else,” Ball said at the press conference. The county will solicit input from residents online and hold a public hearing on May 2, after which Ball will make his final decision by May 15, 12 days shy of the anniversary of the 2018 flood.

Paying for the project will be a multi-year process involving several funding streams, Ball said. Already, the county budget will include $15.3 million for flood mitigation. Another $3.4 million will come from the state capital budget, and an additional $700,000 for cleanup and façade restoration will come from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development.

Among preservationists, the new proposals are being met with cautious optimism. “It’s always tough to see four buildings come down, and I’ll need to better understand—as the public does—the decision-making process,” said Nicholas Redding, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Maryland. “Then the [next] part of the conversation is what happens to the buildings? Can they be moved and disassembled? How are they treated, and then, what follows?”

Ball also promised “immediate” action to address blight on the lower end of Main Street, where several historic buildings, including those designated to be demolished, remain boarded up. “It’s been like living in a disaster area,” resident Christina Allen Page told CityLab.

“Or a war zone,” Beth Woodruff, another resident, chimed in.

Among those who will have to make the biggest sacrifice is Sally Tennant, who’s been a part of Main Street for nearly 40 years. She lost both her business and her home, which sits atop her funky craft and jewelry boutique Discoveries in one of the buildings now designated for demolition. After the 2016 flood, she spent her life savings on repairs, only to watch another deluge destroy her work a year later.

Of those four buildings, hers is the only one that the county government hasn’t acquired. She says she’s still negotiating. “I’m the only one who’s losing their home and I’m one of two losing their business locations,” she said. “I just want to get a fair appraisal and get treated fairly by the county for the damages to make me whole.”

Like many residents, Tennant believes unconstrained hillside development and poor stormwater management policies played a role in the disaster. But she says she’s largely accepted that, no matter what, her building is lost. “I don’t like it,” she said. “But if that what needs to happen there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Ball’s latest plan reveals the challenges involved in saving Ellicott City, where revenue from tourists and visitors is critical to the local economy. Flood mitigation projects take years to implement, but next storm can come any day. Meanwhile, uncertainty about the town’s future is making its economic present difficult. “The minute you get a sprinkle, this place clears out,” said Page.

Officials estimate that damage from the 2016 flood cost $42 million in lost economic activity; losses since 2018 are likely be even greater, as many business owners decide not to return a second time. At least six Main Street buildings are currently vacant and for lease, and a handful more at the lower end are still in disrepair.

While there’s a growing urgency to protect the vitality and character of Main Street now, Ball acknowledges that some things need to dramatically change. “We’re quickly approaching the first anniversary of the 2018 flood,” he said. “We need a bold innovative solution that won’t just be a Band-Aid for this town until the next storm.”

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The New Art Galleries: Urban Cemeteries

In 2002, artist Patricia Cronin purchased a burial plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and installed a three-ton Carrara marble sculpture of her and her then-partner, fellow artist Deborah Kass, in bed. Eyes closed, hair flowing together, they are depicted in a moment of quiet bliss. Called “ in the Hamilton mansion, on view through April 28. Roberto Lugo’s ceramic vessels infuse traditional pottery shapes with inspiration from hip-hop style and black culture, memorializing people from his Philly neighborhood of Kensington. Leo Tecoksy pays tribute to his grandmother through neon works of her name and hanging glass stars, arrows, and crowns that recall her Depression-era glass collection.

Art by Leo Tecosky in the ‘Graffiti & Ornament’ exhibition at The Woodlands in Philadelphia. (Photo by Ryan Collerd, courtesy of The Woodlands and Past Present Projects)

These pieces could be installed in a white-walled gallery, but having them in a cemetery, with tombstones visible outside the windows, makes the artists’ statements on remembrance particularly powerful. Exhibitions like this one can also elevate narratives that were marginalized or banished from cemeteries that historically reserved the grandest memorials for white, wealthy families.

Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta invites artists to create temporary interventions in the burial ground, which dates to 1850 and greatly expanded during the Civil War. Its May 2018 exhibition Golden Hour included Sara Jimenez’s “Cenotaph,” which suspended hundreds of strips of red fabric from an old magnolia tree. The installation was next to a huge sculpted lion and a tall obelisk commemorating the Confederate section of the cemetery. The fabric pieces, shaped like inverted obelisks, drew visitor attention to the cemetery’s roughly 900 unmarked African-American graves identified in 2016.

This May, “Illumine,” an after-hours experience of lights and art, will include a tribute to the “Slave Square” area of the cemetery in which enslaved people were interred.

“We’ve used sound, visual art, light, and site-specific installations to interpret Oakland’s history and beauty,” said Richard Harker, director of programming and volunteers at the Historic Oakland Foundation. “We’re always trying to think of creative ways to share Oakland, and we realized that art has been an untapped medium.”

The Historic Oakland Foundation was established in 1976, aimed at restoring and preserving the cemetery. After decades of neglect, the monuments were cracking, sidewalks were falling apart, and few Atlantans were interested in spending a weekend afternoon strolling the grounds. Events like “Illumine” raise funds that go back into the restoration of the cemetery for future generations to enjoy, Harker said. They’re good for fundraising, but they also create meaningful experiences that encourage locals to see the cemetery as more than just an old burial ground—which is especially important since Oakland long ago ran out of new lots to sell.

The character of these cemeteries makes them ready platforms for art that draws on their heritage and beautiful landscapes. Americans tend to not have as much comfort with spaces of death as people in other parts of the world, such as Mexico or Japan, where festivals are held in cemeteries to celebrate ancestors. Yet as historic cemeteries continue to run short on burial space and the descendants of people buried there become more removed in time, cities need to consider what these spaces mean and how they can be part of their future.

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Photographing the Trumpian Urbanism of Atlantic City

The day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, , by Louis Malle, you’ll catch a glimpse of a tattered run-down city at the moment that the casinos began to move in. My book, I think, captures Atlantic City at a similar transitional moment. Trump has taken his [carnival] show on the road and has brought his management style to the entire United States, while Atlantic City now contends with gambling competition from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Two casinos remain empty, the mayor was just caught on video engaged in a 2 a.m. fistfight in the parking garage of one of the casinos, and everyone is excited about sports betting as the new savior.

(Brian Rose)

There are, nevertheless, some positive things happening in AC. There is a nascent art scene centered on the Arts Garage, which is just down the block from White House, a terrific sandwich joint on Arctic Avenue. Stockton University has built a satellite campus on the boardwalk near the old Knife and Fork Inn where political boss Nucky Johnson used to hold court back in Atlantic City’s Prohibition heyday. It’s hoped that younger people will bring new vitality to the city.

Ultimately, the history of Atlantic City is one get-rich scheme after another, with casinos replacing the fantasy hotels of an earlier era. It remains a city of dreamers and dead-enders, with a big-city urban infrastructure perched precariously on a shifting sandbar.

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How Policy, Planning, and Technology can Avoid Gridlocked Commuter Traffic

We are firm believers in putting nudge theory to work within organizations. Luum is a data-driven commute benefits software solution that runs end-to-end employer commute programs and gives them deep insight into how their employees commute. We’ve seen the ripple effect that even the slightest positive behavior changes around the commute can have for an entire organization and, subsequently, its city. Over the past five years, our hometown of Seattle has seen its transit ridership grow (one of two cities in the country!) and boasts a downtown drive-alone rate that hovers around 25 percent.

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Apply a racial lens, and other lessons from Living Cities’ impact investments

In light of our ImpactAssets50 recognition, we will be sharing blog posts, originally posted at Impact Alpha, that highlight the unique values that led the Catalyst and Blended Catalyst Funds to be included in the ImpactAssets 50 among an impressive set of peers in this vibrant and growing field.

Race-neutral efforts to boost economic opportunity have failed. Going forward, organizations across sectors must deliberately incorporate a racial lens into their economic security efforts.

That’s the biggest lesson from Living Cities’ 10 years of impact investing. We have been making impact investments for a decade through two structured debt funds, the Catalyst Fund and Blended Catalyst Fund, that total approximately $80 million from third-party investors.

After 33 transactions and $57 million deployed, we have seen first-hand that impact investing has the potential to drive measurable outcomes for low-income people in America. We have also learned about what does and does not work, and pivoted our investment approach accordingly.

Apply a racial lens. Build a local ecosystem. Invest in people. Work together. Take risks. Lessons from our experience may help inform the growing number of foundations and financial institutions using capital for social change:

1. A race-neutral approach to promoting economic opportunity does not work

Wide and extremely damaging wealth and income gaps between blacks and Hispanics, and whites, have persisted for generations. Race-neutral efforts have failed. Going forward, organizations across sectors must deliberately incorporate a racial lens into their economic security efforts.

Living Cities’ Blended Catalyst Fund has recently focused its investment approach on closing racial wealth gaps by supporting the creation of jobs, income and wealth for low-income people of color in U.S. cities.

The fund recently invested in the Propeller Social Venture Fund, an up-to $2 million fund in New Orleans that lends to early stage entrepreneurs of color who have trouble accessing credit through more traditional means. Businesses run by people of color are more likely to employ people of color and to support the creation of wealth for entrepreneurs of color. The Propeller Social Venture Fund allows the Blended Catalyst Fund to support the creation of jobs for people of color.

In addition to providing capital, the Propeller Social Venture Fund provides technical assistance to its borrowers. That reduces risk by increasing the likelihood they will be able to grow their businesses and repay debt.

2. Location, location, location

A robust ecosystem enhances the likelihood of a deal’s success. In Detroit, we learned that capable players that are well-nested in their collective community vision are key to driving big results.

Detroit was part of Living Cities’ Integration Initiative. The initiative was first launched in 2011 to test whether integrating public sector leadership, collective impact and capital innovation to “open-source” social change would lead to better results for low-income people, faster.

In those early years, we learned that places need to have the appropriate ecosystems in place to deliver social change capital at scale. We studied the “capital absorption” challenge and identified a few capacities places need to realize their vision for economic justice in their community: local partners, the right resources, and a cohesive strategic plan.

3. People matter

Management teams and co-investors can make or break a deal. Partnering with effective teams of highly skilled and complementary people mitigates many impact investing risks.

Whenever we diligence a new investment opportunity, we carefully vet management teams to ensure they have sound judgment, a commitment to impact and a track record of generating positive financial returns.

Partnering with effective teams of highly skilled and complementary people mitigates many impact investing risks.

The general partners for our venture capital funds repeatedly emphasize the importance of management teams for their portfolio companies. The companies are often at such an early stage that there is little other information. They look for teams led by mature CEOs who have a track record of growing businesses, building teams, strategic capital-raising and exits for investors. They look for CEOs who have previously failed and learned from their mistakes.

We also vet our co-investors, to ensure we share similar objectives and philosophies around impact. We need our co-investors to be good partners, particularly if our governance and/or our decision-making rights are intertwined.

4. Collaboration is required to create transformative change

As the proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

Collaboration is required to drive the systems-level change we need. Unfortunately it is also hard, expensive, and time-consuming, with differences in legal restrictions, organization and program-level priorities, risk-return profiles and language.

Living Cities’ first impact investing debt fund, the Catalyst Fund, pooled $38 million in capital from 10 investors to test and scale promising practices to improve the lives of low-income people in U.S. cities. Living Cities spent almost two years raising the Catalyst Fund.

Four of the Catalyst Fund investors – including the Kresge Foundation, Dignity Health, and AARP Foundation, and McKnight Foundation – were either entirely new to impact investing or very early in the work. Testing and learning together helped accelerate adoption. The investors’ board members were reassured that tools of capitalism could advance their foundation’s mission – a more radical idea at the time.

5. Impact requires intentionality and measurement

Find the right borrowers for your social-impact desire and theory of change.

If your goal is to support second-chance employers, brownie-maker Greyston Bakery, with its focus on workforce development, could be an eligible borrower. If your focus is on improving health, Greyston Bakery is less likely to fit.

When closing a new deal, ask borrowers to define specific social metrics. Set targets against those metrics throughout the life of the loan. Then, regularly track performance. Impact data can prompt discussions with borrowers about what is not working financially or programmatically.

When closing a deal, ask borrowers to define specific social metrics.

Attempt to understand the data in the broader context of outcomes-level change. Consider the broader impact of a job on a person’s life. This intentionality will help ensure that borrowers and investors have a mutual understanding of the intended social and financial outcomes.

6. Innovation comes with risk (and failure)

Risk is inherent when exploring new financial models for social good.

Living Cities’ early investments in “pay for success” transactions were experimental in design and have yielded mixed results. Living Cities’ first pay-for-success investment was in 2013. Since then, we have made 9 pay-for-success related investments.

The Denver Supportive Housing Social Impact Bond Initiative is an $8.6 million project that scales the services of two local non-profits to provide intensive wrap-around services to 250 chronically homeless individuals who are “high utilizers” of court, jail, detox and emergency room services.

Program participants are placed into permanent affordable housing developed with the project, with supportive services. The city of Denver is making two separate outcomes payments: the first around housing stability and the second based on a reduction in the number of jail days. The Blended Catalyst Fund invested in the “jail days-reduction” tranche.

The payments for the separate outcomes are not codependent. But there is an assumption that individuals who spend more time in housing are less likely to spend more time in jail. The first 18 months of the project provides promising evidence that the program is meeting or exceeding its housing stability goals, according to the first evaluation of housing stability outcomes published in October 2017. Participants are getting housing and staying housed.

It is too early to draw conclusions, but preliminary analysis of jail stays among early participants who were housed also shows that the approach is working.



Other pay-for-success transactions Living Cities has invested in have yielded mixed financial and programmatic results. The pay-for-success field is still emerging. Issues like correlation and co-dependency of outcomes that trigger repayment, appropriate types of evaluation, financial structure, policy changes, governance and disclosure, are still being resolved.

Despite the risks, we were interested in the potential of pay-for-success: the innovative financing structures; cross-sector collaboration between private investors, non-profit organizations and government; data collection and evaluation; increased accountability for results; and the potential for scaling social solutions that work. Catalyst Fund investors have supported the pay-for-success transactions, knowing the funds had a mandate around innovation and had been structured to absorb certain amounts of financial loss.

Living Cities has a mandate around transparency. Our impact investing strategy focused on racial equity will yield new lessons that we will share. We also support and applaud our co-investors and other organizations and individuals who are applying a racial equity lens to their work.

Photo credit: Greyston Bakery

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