Don’t Overlook Equity Issues in City Climate-Action Plans

The Global Climate Action summit in San Francisco began on Wednesday. This year’s goal: “Take Ambition to the Next Level.”

What is that next level? As part of the We Are Still In, Mayors Climate Alliance, and other city climate-action efforts, many U.S cities are creating their first ever climate-action plans; others are rewriting theirs to meet more ambitious goals. The next level is ensuring that these multi-year plans integrate equity considerations or risk perpetuating an unjust life for millions of already marginalized Americans.

The latest statistics on the state of urban equity in this country are mostly miserable: Gentrification is racially re-segregating cities; the urban income gap is widening, especially for people of color and women; homelessness is ruining a record number of lives and swamping local services.

Climate action can address these problems or make them worse, depending on whether the research and planning make equity and empowerment issues central to their approach.

What’s that mean? It’s easiest to explain through an example using a common climate action plan goal statement. Without equity: Collaborate to reduce the role of carbon—including from coal and natural gas sources—in a city’s electricity mix. With equity: Collaborate with utilities, customers and stakeholders to reduce the carbon content in a city’s electricity mix; mitigate any potential cost increases to low-income households by providing subsidies for energy efficiency retrofits that reduce their home energy use and its cost.

Programs to address carbon can stoke what academics call low-carbon gentrification. Cities that enacts measures to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but fail to build in equity safeguards, likely will push more low-income ratepayers out of the city.

The Austin Energy Community Solar Project is an example of climate action equity done right. Austin, Texas, had a goal of achieving 65 percent renewable power supply by 2027 including local solar. But city officials realized that, while solar installations had increased, most had been by middle- and high-income single-family homeowners. Renters and lower-income residents faced various barriers to accessing solar, yet including these groups was recognized as crucial to facilitating community-wide growth and commitment. The Community Solar program reduced physical barriers to on-site solar and the city council allocated more resources to increase solar energy adoption and access for underserved markets. This project won the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s 2018 Climate Action Award.

In Portland, Oregon, the incorporation of equity considerations in climate action plans is an effort that has been growing for the past decade, resulting in a “Climate Action through Equity” plan in 2016. This grew out of the Portland Plan, the citywide equity framework, and the Office of Equity and Human Rights we established during my tenure as mayor of the city to ensure that all programs and agencies included these considerations in their work.

In Portland, we also created a local nonprofit, Enhabit, to offer homeowners loans for residential energy efficiency upgrades, paid off with a charge on their utility bills. In a city with too few non-male and non-white tradespeople, we aimed to have the work done largely by women and minorities working with local equity partners, like the Oregon Minority Contractors Association and Oregon Tradeswomen, to make sure what we intended made sense on the ground. And, a national equity partner, Green for All, made sure we used best practices learned in other cities. Now, more national climate justice organizations stand ready to help cities integrate equity issues in their plans: Emerald Cities Collaborative, Environmental Health Coalition, WE ACT, and 100 Resilient Cities.

The movement for making equity and empowerment a central aspect of climate-action plans is growing and has taken hold in some cities as these examples show. Yet a startling number of city climate action plans still fail to include equity in any meaningful way.

In a recent study, Pursuing Equity and Justice in a Changing Climate, Assessing Equity in Local Climate and Sustainability Plans in U.S. Cities, Portland State University researcher Greg Schrock and his colleagues decided to quantify this problem, using different measurements to analyze climate and sustainability action plans from cities around the country.

One finding is that many cities, perhaps the vast majority, “ignore equity goals as part of their climate and sustainability plans, or at least treat them as secondary or tertiary goals relative to environmental and economic goals,”the researchers wrote.

We need to move climate action equity from an afterthought to the way cities go about their work. The American climate action movement can help American cities make strides in two important ways:

Develop protocols for cities to collect and report on climate equity

Data can drive action for change, as we’ve seen before in climate action. For example, before 2014, for over a decade, cities devised their own methods to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions or lacking methods, just didn’t evaluate them at all. With so many different ways of measuring (if any) it was hard to tell who was making progress and where, and what to really believe.  Then, in 2014, the “Greenhouse Gas Emissions Protocols for Cities” were created. These protocols made it much easier a city to see how it was doing, face down the naysayers, compare to other cities, and learn from them.

We need “Climate Equity Protocols for Cities.” These goals would set measurable and more ambitious environment justice goals, be transparent, and ensure that cities measure both equity status and carbon emissions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the United States could serve as the basis for creating these city equity reporting protocols.

Authors of the Climate Equity Protocols for Cities could include equity-missioned researchers, mayors and city manager associations, and climate data portals, like CDP or Clearpath.

Recognize the cities making strides in equity-driven climate change plans

Doing the difficult climate equity work should be rewarded. Cities get certifications as things like a Scenic City, Smart City, or are recognized in the US and Canada Green City Index, as a Tree City USA, or among the Best Places to Live. Cities use these to market themselves and to attract and retain businesses and workers. But few such programs include climate equity in their evaluations. For example, trees are often a very cost-effective urban climate action. Yet, there’s a major disparity in urban canopy covers. Generally, rich neighborhoods have trees; poor and minority neighborhoods don’t. The Tree City USA program could add the equity of a city’s tree canopy coverage to its evaluation criteria.

“Environment, economy and equity” have long been mentioned as three goals of the climate-change action community, but in our plans, we have most often dropped the last “E,” equity, leaving us with paltry results in our collective mainstream environmental justice efforts. This week, as leaders from the United States and around the world meet in San Francisco, this value should infuse their discussions.

And in the United States, as cities gear up for more ambitious long-term climate action plans, we find ourselves at an urban environmental crossroads. Cities will make choices on what kind of carbon-free future they plan for. The choices we make now will shape the social equity and inclusion of America’s urban life for decades to come.

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As Hurricane Florence Approaches, the Rural Carolinas Brace For Impact

When Hurricane Hugo—the last Category 4 storm to strike the Carolinas—roared ashore in 1989, Jack Edwards knew what he had to do. In that storm’s immediate aftermath, he and his wife, Dorothy, went out to help their neighbors in their small town of Marion, South Carolina, about 50 miles from the coast. They connected generators, hung tarps over torn-up roofs, and tried to fill in the in the gaps in the county’s emergency response, which couldn’t get to everyone who needed help in this sparsely populated area.  

The Edwards have been taking on this disaster response after big storms locally and across the country ever since. In 2014, after an ice storm blacked out the power to a dying neighbor’s oxygen unit, the husband-wife team ran over to hook up their generator at 1 a.m., getting up in the middle of the night to make sure it stayed running for five days straight.

This year, personal health issues mean that Edwards, a 72-two-year old retired hospital engineer, won’t be out in the field participating directly in the post-storm response to Hurricane Florence as it bears down on the Carolinas. But he will still be coordinating a team of 22 volunteers across Marion, all from different churches. Edwards does this because, while he has had the financial resources to weather storms, not everyone in his town does. “We live in a small community where everyone knows everyone,” Edwards said. “I think you do what you can when your neighbor is down.”

The rural, often poorer parts of the eastern Carolinas that are anticipated to bear the brunt of Hurricane Florence face a triple threat in the face of this potentially catastrophic storm, which is projected to make landfall as a Category 4 storm on Thursday morning. Florence brings the threat of massive storm surges, rainfall that could top 25 inches, and devastating high winds that threaten human life and structures in the storm’s path. With as much as 10 feet of flooding projected for some areas, about 1.7 million people between South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, are under evacuation orders. Authorities warn residents who’ve weathered historic storms of the past—Hugo in 1989, Hazel in 1954—that comparisons with Florence may not be helpful. ‘‘The waves and the wind this storm may bring is nothing like you’ve ever seen,’’ North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Tuesday.

While much of the attention is focused on the storm’s impact on fragile coastal resorts and historic cities like Charleston and Wilmington, many disaster researchers and responders worry more about the more isolated inland regions, where a lack of resources, poor communications infrastructure, and challenging geography can hamper emergency efforts.

“It’s our poor, rural communities that are often hit the hardest in events like this,” said Randy Creamer, a disaster relief coordinator for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.  He spoke on the phone on Tuesday afternoon as he drove west on Interstate 26 through swishing rainfall, having spent the day emailing hundreds of volunteers about what to do if power lines go down in their communities during the event. A majority of the communities represented by the network of churches that he manages are in relatively isolated parts of the state.

North Carolina’s eastern third is also its most impoverished. (Data: U.S. Census. Map: David Montgomery/CityLab)

While rural residents might be more self-sufficient than urban or suburban communities in certain ways, some are also uniquely vulnerable. “If you live in the country, you’re more accustomed to the occasional power outage, because you know no one is coming to help you,” Creamer said. “But when you get to the economically depressed areas… a single mom working three jobs, there is not a lot she can be thinking about how to get over this all by herself.”

Adding to the challenge is the fact that parts of this region have yet to recover from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The vulnerability is partly a factor of geography—North Carolina’s so-called Coastal Plain is low-lying and obviously closest to the ocean. But it’s also a reflection of historic economic inequity. According to reporting by the Washington Post after Matthew, roughly 50 percent of households in the Coastal Plain live in what’s termed “liquid asset poverty.” These are households that lack the money to cover short-term expenses when properties are destroyed, and couldn’t necessarily move if they wanted to.

“What I’m fearful about is there are a lot of people who are not going to be OK because they don’t have elevated structures,” Susan Cutter, the director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina, told the Associated Press. “They’re in low-lying flood-prone areas and they didn’t leave because they had nowhere to go and no resources to get there.”

That is part of the story in Princeville, the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States. Nearly 80 percent of the town in North Carolina’s Edgecombe County was underwater after Matthew, partly due to flawed levee engineering. The inland community has barely rebuilt in the years since: The town hall and elementary school still haven’t been replaced. FEMA relief has only gone so far for many residents there and in nearby Tarboro and Greenville, and the region’s population is much smaller.

Rural poverty also makes it harder to prepare for storms. Roughly 12 percent of households in Edgecombe County do not have access to personal vehicles. There, and other parts of the state, residents are further out of reach of emergency services, transportation, and internet connections during and after the storm. There aren’t many transit options in the Carolinas for those who don’t own vehicles.

Electricity and internet connections are of particular concern to Jim Stritzinger, the director of the Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics at the University of South Carolina and former executive director of Connect South Carolina, a statewide broadband connectivity initiative. The continued reliance on aging DSL connections in rural parts of the Carolinas worry him in the event of storms like this. Elevated wires are connected to telephone poles and often haven’t been maintained. If power is interrupted during a storm, isolated areas could easily be without the means to communicate or get critical information for days. “Rural communities are absolutely the ones I’m most concerned with,“ he said.

A map of broadband connections in South Carolina. Light purple indicates slower, weaker connections. (University of South Carolina’s Center for Applied Innovation and Advanced Analytics)
A map of broadband connections in North Carolina. Light purple indicates slower, weaker connections. (NC Broadband)

The risk of environmental hazards after the storm also runs high for poor, rural communities, writes Rachel Cleetus, a policy director and lead economist for climate and energy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Florence’s rains could overwhelm the waste lagoons from North Carolina’s 2,300 hog farms, contaminating water bodies with toxic sludge. In Hurricane Matthew, 14 such lagoons overflowed. In addition, coal ash ponds could get washed out, wastewater treatment plants could leak, and sewage could seep into groundwater, tainting the wells that many small towns rely on for drinking water. Black and Hispanic low-income communities are disproportionately located near such sites of industry and agriculture, and all of these associated wastes. “The true test of our disaster response doesn’t just lie in how quickly the lights come back on or flights are restored in major economic hubs, but in how well isolated or marginalized communities fare in the aftermath of storms,” Cleetus wrote.

On Tuesday, Governor Cooper promised the AP that emergency responders wouldn’t forget vulnerable residents. Advanced flood risk maps will keep the state informed about where the water is rising, he said, helping officials advise residents about when and where to flee. “The idea is to have those shelters available to people on higher ground, and no matter what their income, we want to get people out of places that may be flooding,” he said.

In some ways, it may help that the last disaster was so recent. In Robeson County, which has the highest poverty rate in the state and saw some of the worst flooding during Matthew in 2106, emergency managers have brought in extra generators and fuel, and are coordinating communication lines coordinated between the sheriff’s department, EMS, and the highway patrol. School buses and transportation providers are at the ready to shuttle evacuees to shelters in many of the likely affected counties.

Pasquotank County, a finger-shaped area on the northern coast of North Carolina, has four emergency operation centers up and running. The local demand-response transportation agency plans to wind down regular service on Thursday, but will back up county-provided emergency shuttle buses transporting those who don’t have family or friends to rely on to emergency shelters. “We’re a small transit agency and we try to do the best we can,” said Herb Mullen, the director of transportation at the Inter County Public Transportation Authority, which responds to requests in Pasquotank, Perquimans, Camden, Chowan, and Currituck counties.

Though they may be extra vulnerable, rural communities are not the only ones staring down the limitations of poverty in the face of a natural disaster. In Charleston, South Carolina, William Hamilton, a lawyer and political activist, runs a group called Best Friends of Lowcountry Transit. Earlier this year, he critiqued the emergency preparedness manual his state published for barely mentioning public transit resources for those who don’t own vehicles in his city.

Since then, Hamilton says that things have improved—the signs marking the stops for Charleston’s shelter-bound emergency buses are much clearer, for example. But there are still populations at enormous risk in his city, especially those living in homelessness, who have even fewer resources. “We have a better system than we had a year ago,” he wrote via email. “But I still believe far more emphasis needs to be put on evacuating vulnerable populations, as the horror story in New Orleans 13 years ago proved.”

Like many of his neighbors in Marion, Jack Edwards won’t be evacuating today. He’s expecting wind damage, at least, but hopes that his property is elevated enough to stay dry. “This old house has withstood a lot of storms,” he said. But this time, Edwards acknowledged, “we could be the ones that they’re coming to help.”

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France’s High-Speed Rail Expansion Takes a New Direction

France’s high-speed rail network is about to get a massive expansion.

On Tuesday, the government of President Emmanuel Macron announced a €13.4 billion ($15.5 billion) injection of funds into the high-speed TGV network, with work due to be staggered over the next decade. This increase of 44 percent on the previous government’s investments will deliver five new high-speed links, connections that have long been suggested and now have their funds confirmed and first steps agreed to.

The new links will connect fresh destinations at a maximum speed of up to 173.5 miles (279.3  kilometers) per hour, and their locations reveal a clear new sense of direction. Of the five links, only one connects directly to Paris.

This is, by and large, new. Until now, almost all projects for the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, which translates simply as “high-speed train”) have been about connecting the French capital with the regions. The first link, between Paris and Lyon, opened in 1983, and ever since, the TGV map has resembled a spider with thin, spindly legs of high-speed track extending out from a body located in Paris.

Just two lines so far have bucked the trend. One is a short 1994 Paris bypass link that allows trains to cross France from south to north (and on to Belgium and the U.K.) without being obliged to stop at a Parisian terminus. The other is Northeastern France’s Rhine-Rhone link, opened in 2011, which still hosts services to Paris that continue on at slower speeds on regular tracks, and will likely be extended to the capital at a later date.

By contrast, the five new links are scattered across the map. There’s still one to Paris in there, a relatively short line between the capital and the Normandy port of Le Havre, where work will begin with the extension of Paris’s Saint Lazare Station. Further south, an important fast link will be built between Bordeaux and Toulouse, cities with a combined metro area population of 2.5 million. The city of Montpellier will see its TGV line extended to the southern border city of Perpignan, ultimately facilitating a much faster service south to the Barcelona region, with which Perpignan is already linked by high-speed rail.

Further west, along the coast, work will start on a line from Marseille to Nice, France’s fifth largest city. There’s a final link in France’s northern provinces, one that should actually reduce rail traffic to the city of Paris—a service linking Amiens and other northern cities directly with Charles de Gaulle Airport, reducing Paris proper’s role as a gateway (and bottleneck) to the region. Elsewhere, an upgrade to the (non-TGV) line between Paris and Limoges should cut the journey time by 25 minutes.

To Americans used to rattling slowly along a limited network in Amtrak trains that resemble battered soup cans, this level of commitment seems truly impressive, and it is. But with relatively high prices for high-speed tickets, the TGV expansion is inevitably a case in which national tax money is dispersed to a service that remains out of reach for many. Perhaps reflecting an awareness of this, the national carrier SNCF has also announced another scheme this week—a major enlargement of its low-cost, high-speed service, Ouigo.

As CityLab has reported, Ouigo offers substantially cheaper high-speed services that cut costs by mainly relying on suburban stations, ditching first-class or buffet cars, and selling tickets online only. Those suburban stations undercut their convenience somewhat, but the prices are irresistible. Since Ouigo launched in 2013, 65 percent of its 33 million passengers to date paid €25 or less for an intercity trip. Now SNCF plans to double Ouigo’s ridership, increasing passenger numbers to 26 million annually by 2021. In doing so, they’re making a new departure. While their Paris terminuses have so far been in the suburbs, next month, they’ll begin departing from the central Gare de Lyon.

This extension is a risk—to date, Ouigo has not yet made a profit—but it shows nonetheless that France is thinking hard about ways to make its high-speed network truly affordable. That alone is worthy of praise.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that TGV services to Montpellier started this year.

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Why Cynthia Nixon Can’t Have the Bagel She Wants

We all know what New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon did at Zabar’s on Sunday. It’s useless to relitigate her bagel order here—it was a mind-boggling meld of sweet and savory that shook many to their cores. All I will say, as a New Yorker myself, is that New York takes immense pride in the quality of its ovular carb patties. And when Nixon chose to disrespect the medium by mixing cinnamon raisin, lox, tomatoes, and capers (why capers? ever!?), it was taken as disrespect to the whole city.

Nixon is far from the first politician to fall into the epicurean trap. In photo-ops across the country, candidates sit down with voters over a meal, hoping to look and feel relatable. They go for some stereotypical local fare; something safe and familiar that screams “I’m just like you!” But these foods are steeped in tradition and unwritten rules. One misstep and you’ve let down your whole hometown, or revealed your carpetbaggery.

Bill de Blasio eating pizza with a knife and fork? A New York “disaster.” Gerald Ford attempting to eat a tamale, shuck and all, at the Alamo? No Texan would dare. Mitt Romney asking for a “sub” in hoagie country? To Philly residents, unforgivable.

Local food matters to locals: how it’s eaten, with which fixins, and at what temperature. The protocols are complicated, and they’re intrinsic to place. John Kerry had every right to want Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak! But he should’ve known better than to ask for it. If your job is to relate to people, then knowing—and caring to learn—how to eat their food is a good place to start.

This desire for radical relatability emerged in the wake of two key gaffes in presidential politics, says veteran political media consultant and former MSNBC political director Tammy Haddad. First, in 1988, there was Mike Dukakis in a tank, basically just looking dumb wearing a helmet. Then, during George H. W. Bush’s run for reelection in 1992, there was the supermarket affair. After a trip to a trade association’s recreation of a grocery store—not even a real one!—Bush encountered the electronic scanner at the end of a check-out line, picked it up, and asked, incredulously, “This is for checking out?”

He later said he was, quote, “amazed by some of the technology” he saw in the exhibit. “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed,” read a New York Times headline from the moment. His campaign wasn’t exactly doomed by the incident, but it did have a ripple effect. (Though Donald Trump clearly didn’t learn from it: This year he claimed people need ID to buy groceries, leading people to wonder if he’s ever actually bought a grocery.)

“It really sent shockwaves through all candidates and all future candidates,” Haddad said of Bush’s blunder. “It was a narrative he could never get out of: Bush was not relatable to regular people.” And what’s an easy way to be relatable? Food.

“The key point is saying, ’I’m just like you, I’m sitting at the table with you, and we’re sharing a meal,’” she said. “What’s more familial than sharing a meal and sharing the food we love together?”

Eating food incorrectly can also show other shortcomings. When 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton tried boba and called it “chewy tea,” that signaled cultural ignorance. When England’s then-Labour Party leader Ed Milliband sloppily scarfed a bacon sandwich—“that staple for any politician wanting to look like he fits in,” according to the U.K.’s Independent—that signaled gross incompetence. When then-president Barack Obama leaned over Chipotle’s sneeze guard to order, that signaled disrespect for basic hygiene.

Nixon’s story, in the end, could have been interpreted differently. She could have been a New Yorker eating a New York bagel just the way she liked it, in an unapologetically New York way—convention and taste buds be damned. She tried to own it, even fundraising off the viral moment:

But when Haddad paused our conversation to watch the infamous video of Nixon in Zabar’s, loudly proclaiming the order that could spell her doom come Thursday’s primary, she literally gasped.

“Oh my god,” she said. (It was her first viewing.) “You have to be careful that your voters aren’t going to gag on your food choices. They’re not going to vote for you if what you order makes them gag.”

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CityLab Daily: Better Public Transit Means Fewer Traffic Deaths

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Street smarts: Every day, about 102 people in the United States are killed in motor vehicle crashes. The majority of the crash-related deaths (which total more than 37,000 each year) occur in rural areas, but these fatalities have been rising in urban areas since 2009. That has spurred more than 30 cities in the U.S. to commit to Vision Zero, with the goal of bringing their road fatalities to zero by 2025.

To make this happen, cities have taken a range of steps that include improvements in street design and stricter traffic enforcement. A new bit of research from the American Public Transportation Association and the Vision Zero Network finds that public transit can be a safety workhorse, too. In cities where public transit trips get taken more frequently, there are fewer road deaths for passengers and pedestrians. The secret? Buses and trains get more people out of their cars. Read up on the research in my latest story: Cities With Good Public Transit Have Fewer Road Fatalities

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

How ‘Social Infrastructure’ Can Knit America Together

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People, talks about how schools, libraries, and other institutions can restore a sense of common purpose in America.

Richard Florida

Is This Experiment in Digital Democracy Too Crazy to Work?

A startup called Voatz wants to build an unhackable way to vote over the internet. What could possibly go wrong?

Sarah Holder

Homeless, But Part of Society in Montreal

Montreal has a multi-million dollar plan to address homelessness. At the center is social inclusion.

Sophia Chang

Ahead of Climate Summit, Marchers Take to City Streets

Preceding this week’s Global Climate Action Summit, thousands rallied for the environment in cities around the world.

Oliver Milman

Italy Defied Starbucks—Until It Didn’t

The chain’s new store in Milan reveals some unexpected ways that coffee connects with national identity.

Rachel Donadio

The Arch of History

(Susannah Lohr)

Fifty years ago, Vice President Hubert Humphrey dedicated the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, describing it as “a soaring curve in the sky that links the rich heritage of yesterday with the richer future of tomorrow.” What’s to come in the next 50 years? An illustrated piece imagines a historian’s lecture in the year 2068, retelling 100 years of the city’s history as it struggles through an intractable soft decline. The St. Louis story continues with bankruptcy, emergency management, and vacancy, yet city leaders still hope for a return to vitality. Read on CityLab: St. Louis: 2068.

What We’re Reading

Los Angeles is teaming up with other cities to get cheaper electric vehicles (Wired)

Crumbling concrete, leaking roofs, and busted elevators: The state of the T (Boston Globe)

What millions of retiring small business owners could mean for cities (Next City)

How struggling Dayton, Ohio reveals the chasm among American cities (ProPublica)

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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Is This Experiment in Digital Democracy Too Crazy to Work?

Voting in the U.S. is an intentionally high-friction endeavor. Elections are held at in-person polling centers, open during hours when most people are working, on a day that hasn’t been made a national holiday. They’re governed by strict voter ID laws, designed to weed out imposters and in many cases succeeding mostly in disenfranchising people of color. And they’re often executed using decidedly low-tech methods—with paper ballots, susceptible to user error (never forget: hanging chads) and (accidental or deliberate) miscounts.

Efficiency, some have argued, is not the point of the voting process. Security is. But this election season, West Virginia is trying out a new, blockchain-based voting system that officials hope can achieve both, simultaneously. And experts are calling it a “horrific idea.”

In April, the state began asking some citizens serving in the overseas military to trade in mailed absentee ballots for digital ones, submitted through an app run by a Boston-based startup called Voatz. No one is forced to switch over to the new system, but two counties opted in for a May primary pilot, and overseas military from every county are eligible to use it for the November election. The votes will be converted into paper ballots and recorded with the other absentees. They’ll all be counted together in November.

The process itself isn’t all that complicated: Blockchain is, pared down to its simplest elements, an online database of transactions. In the context of an election, those transactions are votes; the blockchain server itself is more like a virtual ballot box and an election administrator all in one. Identities are confirmed by selfie and state-issued ID, and then double-anonymized, according to Voatz, “first by the smartphone, and second by the blockchain server network.”

West Virginia is the first U.S. state to attempt a blockchain-run election of this scale. But Voatz has run more than 30 pilot elections (ranging from the 2018 MassDems Convention to student council elections) since its launch in 2015, recording more than 75,000 votes in the process. After West Virginia’s May primary pilot, “four audits of various components of the tool, including its cloud and blockchain infrastructure, revealed no problems,” CNN reported.

Worldwide, trust in this new approach is growing. The Japanese city of Tsukuba became the first in the country to introduce their own version of blockchain-based voting this year, also for overseas military service members. Voters verify their identity in the system using Japan’s version of social security identifiers and weigh in not on elected officials, but on proposals for local social development programs. In Moscow, city residents can cast votes on some local municipal decisions (like street names) using a blockchain-based app called Active Citizen. Switzerland and Ukraine are trying versions this year, too.

Blockchain is being applied to voting now because it’s often considered inherently un-hackable, since its data is stored on multiple servers that all verify the authenticity of the blocks (in Voatz’ case, the votes) and copy them onto the chain of blocks that make up a blockchain. Those blocks (again, votes!) are supposed to be un-erasable—and unchangeable.

Voatz insists that their technology has been been vetted by third-party auditors, including a public HackerOne program; a pen-testing system; and the software company Security Innovation. Unlike Moscow’s Active Citizen app, which, as CityLab reported in April, has the Moscow government serving as an “authority node” and could thus be considered a tool more of propaganda than empowerment, Voatz’ system is truly decentralized: The West Virginia government doesn’t have the power to alter votes, only count them.

And unlike bitcoin’s permissionless blockchain model, which allows anyone to act as a verifier, an independent vetting process decides who can node-check for West Virginia. “Typically, these nodes would include all the stakeholders in an election such as the major political parties, NGOs, non-profits and independent auditors, etc,” reads Voatz’ FAQ. In other words, official people, not GRU hackers dialing in from their couches in Russia. (Voatz wouldn’t comment directly on this story, citing a busy pre-election season.)

Still, many critics of the West Virginia blockchain-voting plan are extremely dubious of the whole idea. There’s the word blockchain, for one—a now-omnipresent but still largely mysterious technology often associated with doomed disruption projects. Also, there’s the name Voatz. It’s “the Theranos of voting!” software developer Buzz Andersen wrote on Twitter in the days after Voatz’ launch. Code for: a soon-to-be-humiliating, high-tech scam.

It’s true that taking things online might seem like the least secure option for the future of voting. Election-system hackery has appeared in almost half of U.S. states, and Russian voter manipulators are mopping up indictments. (After security architect Kevin Beaumont posted a critical Twitter thread raising eyebrows at the fact that a former Voatz software developer once worked in Russia, the company released a statement saying that this staffer was just an intern who happened to be Russian.)

But others have voiced concerns about the technology itself. According to a new paper from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy, blockchain’s vaunted security measures could kick in too late: “If malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.”

This was put a bit more simply by Joseph Lorenzo Hall, the chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, who told CNN: “It’s internet voting on people’s horribly secured devices, over our horrible networks, to servers that are very difficult to secure without a physical paper record of the vote.”

Such fears are not unique to a blockchain-based system, says Ari Juels, a professor of technology and computer science at Cornell Tech: Any internet-hosted voting platform would be similarly vulnerable. “It’s very challenging to secure users’ devices,” Juels said. “There’s a risk that even if the integrity of the voting infrastructure remains intact, users’ devices get hacked or compromised through things like spear phishing campaigns.”

Voatz addresses this criticism on their website, saying they’ve gone to great lengths to ensure devices aren’t compromised in the first place. “Only certain classes of smartphones that are equipped with the latest security features are allowed to be used,” their FAQ reads.

Offering more paths to voter enfranchisement for members of the military should, on its face, be a popular goal. “There is nobody that deserves the right to vote any more than the guys that are out there, and the women that are out there, putting their lives on the line for us,” West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner told CNN.

But fears around election security, both founded and less so, have become weapons in a larger political battle over voters’ rights and disenfranchisement. The Trump administration has consistently raised the issue of rampant voting fraud, without any evidence to support it. “[T]he lie is so mesmerizing, it takes off like a wildfire,” wrote Carol Anderson in a recent New York Times op-ed, “so that the irrational fear that someone might vote who shouldn’t means that hundreds of thousands who should can’t cast ballots.”

When it comes to devising a safe way to vote over the internet, the stakes are high: Even if only a small number of users in West Virginia’s blockchain pilot were hacked, it would potentially undermine trust in the integrity of the system of a whole. Indeed, the fear that our votes are vulnerable can work to undermine democracy almost as well as hacking itself. “The integrity of the election can be undermined,” said Juels, “because people can be attuned to anecdotes about the process being [compromised].”

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How ‘Social Infrastructure’ Can Knit America Together

America is at a crossroads: Our nation is as divided as at any point since the Civil War. Our cities face a new crisis of escalating housing costs, rampant gentrification, and a growing gap between rich and poor.

In his new book out today, Palaces for the People, my New York University colleague Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist, makes the case that a better future for our cities and our society can be built around the concept of social infrastructure. Following a long tradition of social thought from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey to Robert Putnam, Klinenberg sees social infrastructure as veritable glue that connects us and binds us together in our communities. He argues that renewing our commitment to this infrastructure is essential to rebuilding a more cohesive, civil, and forward-looking society.

Penguin Random House, right / Eric Klinenberg, left (Lisa DeNeffe)

“I honestly wrote this book in kind of a fury after the [2016] election,” is how he put it to me when we spoke. “I got really tired of the conversation about how horrible the world is and about how things are falling apart. I felt like I need to scour the world for solutions to provide some sort of blueprint for how we move forward.”

I spoke with Klinenberg by phone last week about the book and how America and its cities can move forward based on his concept of social infrastructure. Our conversation has been lightly edited.

What is social infrastructure—how do you define it?

Social infrastructure is a set of physical places and organizations that shape our interactions. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters all kinds of social interactions, helps build relationships, and turns community from a vague, fuzzy concept into a lived experience. When social infrastructure is degraded and neglected, it makes it far more likely that we will grow isolated and be left to fend for ourselves.

I think of social infrastructure as being just as real as the infrastructure for water, food, energy, or transit. It is the material substratum that supports social life. The idea is that the social life we experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there’s a context for it. It can be supported or undermined by the places where we spend time.

It’s quite literally a thing in the world that we failed to conceive and, because we failed to conceive it, we haven’t seen or recognized the possibilities for building it up. I think people believe that the social glue has come undone, and the level of polarization and divisiveness we are experiencing right now is unsustainable. Now is the crucial moment for starting to think more seriously about how we rebuild some sense of a common purpose.

We’re already familiar with the concept of “third places”: the corner bar, the coffee shop, the hair salon, and the like. How does social infrastructure differ from the third place?

Third places can be part of the social infrastructure. Commercial entities do have a key role in shaping how we interact. I observed this in my research in Chicago: If you lived in a poor neighborhood that had a dense and flourishing retail district, you were just more likely to be drawn out of your home and into areas where you would establish social contacts. If you are fortunate enough to live near a bar, restaurant, or bookstore that is truly a welcoming space, you will benefit from having that third place.

But social infrastructure is more expansive. It involves a number of public facilities as well as these private and commercial ones. For instance, the public library: It provides a variety of services and public benefits for people of all ages and stations, regardless of social class, regardless of race or ethnicity, regardless of citizenship status. They’re amazing institutions that would be kind of inconceivable if we didn’t already have them. It’s hard to imagine this notion that every citizen has a right to their cultural heritage and to access a free place where they can better themselves outside of the market coming from a moment like this.

Childcare centers, athletic fields, schools—these are all part of the social infrastructure as well.

You write about the limits of the broken-windows approach to crime. Does social infrastructure point to a better way?

The broken-windows approach didn’t have to be zero-tolerance stop and frisk. It also included at its point of origin a social-infrastructure idea. It was a revelation for me to go back and read [the 1982 Atlantic article] “Broken Windows,” because it has been used politically as justification for a set of policing tactics that even its authors didn’t advocate.

The broken-windows theory began with a statement that communities become targeted and prone to violence and disorder when a building got abandoned, a window broke, graffiti was posted, and people perceived it to be that no one was watching, paying attention, or controlling the social order. They perceived the broken physical spaces as an invitation to crime. The policy response to that has been to crack down on criminal activity, but bizarrely, never to simply fix the window. We never thought to repair the abandoned home or empty lot.

We both have young kids, so when you wrote about social infrastructure for children, I immediately got it. What do you think are the keys to developing better social infrastructure for families?

Let’s start with the childcare center. Harvard sociologist Mario Small studied different kinds of childcare centers and observed that places that really worked hard to welcome parents and created an informal social space, and even an expectation that parents would spend some time in the facility, managed to foster relationships between family members and across families that would provide mutual social support. The physical design and the programming of our institutions for children can make a big difference.

In the book, I write about the school my kids go to in New York City, which has a large extended sidewalk and mini-park area in front of it, and that has a policy that parents of children in early grades have to spend the first 15 to 20 minutes in the classroom with other kids, but also other parents. It’s set up in a way that it is impossible not to develop a community around the school. Whereas when my wife and I took our children to Silicon Valley to spend a year at Stanford, we found that almost everyone dropped off their children via car through a driveway. As a result, you don’t really get to know the school or the other families in the same way. Efficiency, which can be so nice in so many parts of life, is the enemy of family ties.

There are so many forces isolating us. How does the density of the city or neighborhood constitute social infrastructure?

I grew up in Chicago in a neighborhood called Old Town, which had a mix of single-family homes and smaller apartments; fairly low levels of density compared to Manhattan, where I live now. Old Town has a kind of urban landscape that invites people to linger, to sit on the stoops and co-mingle.

The cross streets of Lower Manhattan do just the opposite. You walk as quickly as you possibly can to get into your home. And that doesn’t mean Chicago is a better place to socialize than Manhattan. It just means that in Manhattan, you need another set of social institutions to step up.

Coffee shops, bars, and the like are seen by many as signals of gentrification. How can social infrastructure lead to greater inclusivity?

The most important thing is to recognize that without careful planning, investments in social infrastructure can facilitate displacement and the worst parts of gentrification. I’ve spent years thinking about this because I’ve been the director of research for Rebuild by Design, a federal competition for rebuilding the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. One of the projects that came out of the competition involves building up the social infrastructure in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is an area that is dense with public housing and has a lot of poverty.

From the outset, the residents involved in the planning process expressed real concern that if they supported the initiative, they would simply wind up pushed out. The people who are thinking about future cities keep talking about resilience these days. What the residents of the Lower East Side rightly perceived is that you can’t bounce back if you’re getting bounced out. The debate was, what can we do to make sure investments in social infrastructure didn’t simply result in more polarization and more inequality?

And there’s not an easy answer to this. Political leadership and policy matter here a great deal, and what kind of laws there are to protect residents of an area, laws to protect renters. We have spent years gutting protections for renters, and I think those policy shifts have resulted in more displacement, more dangerous gentrification. I think the question you’re asking is ”How can we do it better?” I don’t know that there’s a guarantee, but I do think it’s the responsibility of policymakers and citizens that those issues are always on the table.

What about suburbs? How do they build social infrastructure with less density?

There’s already a strong push to think about how to develop more walkable areas in suburbs. We can see the value of social infrastructure and how much it is valued by Americans when we look at the most exclusive or affluent suburbs. These are places that have already invested in social infrastructure. Affluent suburbs have athletic facilities and public parks. The libraries of our affluent suburbs are amazing places. I don’t want readers to come away thinking that suburbs have not invested in social infrastructure. In some ways, they invest more in social infrastructure than cities.

Will building social infrastructure come from the top down or bubble up from the bottom?

One of the great things about the United States is that the states and cities are laboratories for democracy and they allow us to experiment with policies and see what works. For a paltry sum, the City of Philadelphia has found a way to reduce violence in many of the most dangerous neighborhoods by investing in places instead of punishing people. The science here is still pretty early, but one can easily imagine taking that policy idea and scaling it up.

I think there’s incredible energy at the grassroots level in cities across the country and we are seeing a renewal of civic engagement. I can imagine using that energy to make local life better. The one caution here is … in the United States, the money required to do this kind of rebuilding really is not at the city level. That’s the problem. The funding cities need comes from the states or the federal government.

In the absence of larger political leadership, it’s hard to really fix the infrastructure in the way that we need it to be fixed. Large-scale infrastructure investment is going to have to involve the coordination of federal, state, and city governments. I think the energy and solutions will come from inside cities, but I think the resources have to come from something bigger.

As divided as we currently are, how can social infrastructure actually bring us together?

It’s only through our shared experiences and shared attempts to solve common problems that we are going to make headway. We are not going to resolve our differences through moral persuasion. We are not going to work this out through debate, and it’s clearly not going to happen through the formal political process. Campaigns and elections are not bringing us together; they’re dividing us further.

It’s not that I’m an optimist, but I do see a way forward. I talk a lot about the branch library in this book, and that’s because they are places where I see the best traditions of America expressing themselves every day—people who are given opportunities to study a language or get a second chance through a job-training program. The kind of investments I see people making in their communities in Republican districts as well as Democratic ones stem from some common principles and concerns.

Unfortunately, things have fallen apart so dramatically in the United States that I think we need to start rebuilding at that foundational level. What common concerns do we have and how can we manage them? I think we have to build up from there. It’s not that I believe social infrastructure will solve all of our problems, but I do think it’s the only place we can meaningfully begin.

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Dangerous Streets? Take the Bus

Since 2014, about 30 cities in the United States have adopted the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities and severe injuries by 2025, known collectively as the Vision Zero pledge. Those cities agreed to undertake a range of changes—from improvements in street design to tightened traffic enforcement—in the name of boosting safety for road users.

So far, it’s been an uphill battle: Even as cars themselves become safer, we seem to be operating them more recklessly. Vehicle crash-related deaths have actually been highlighted last week.

In previous research, APTA found that public transportation is ten times safer per mile than traveling by car in terms of traffic casualty rate. Rail is even safer—with 18 times fewer traffic casualties compared to driving. “At the NTSB, we investigate transportation disasters of all types, but by far, more Americans die on our roads than in any other mode,” Bella Dinh-Zarr, a board member at the National Transportation Safety Board said on the briefing call.

“So much of the cost-benefit consideration [of transportation safety] is done on a distance-based analysis, as opposed to a per-capita-based analysis,” said Vision Zero Network founder and director Leah Shahum. That vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) formula helps in assessing car safety on highways, but doesn’t work as a metric for cities that are also trying to reduce driving in general. “Vision Zero is more than a catchy name or a slogan; it’s a fundamental shift in how we view safety,” she said.

While there’s a case to be made that bigger cities with dedicated public transit have other features that have reduced road fatalities (we’ll get to that in a second), there is a clear benefit to point to: With fewer cars to do dangerous things on the road, people are safer. Even just reducing the total VMT can pay off in reducing collisions: APTA estimates that with Americans taking over 1,300 trips per year, a shift of transit mode share from 1.5 percent to 3 percent could accomplish anywhere from a 10 percent to 40 percent reduction in traffic fatality rates.

“When I see public transportation data in isolation, it’s important, but it’s a signal in a sea of many signals that add up to the overall picture,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. “Transportation is multifaceted; it’s multimodal. No place is simply going to use public transportation to get around and so safety conditions on our roads are an amalgamation of land use and mode choice.”

With pedestrian and bicycling deaths rising in recent years, the pursuit of Vision Zero has placed a new emphasis on those kinds of fatalities, but from a metro-level analysis, it’s still people in automobiles that make up the majority of road deaths and thus those have remained the focus of federal policy. That’s reflected in the many technological advances, from airbags to collision-detection software, that have helped make modern vehicles vastly less lethal to drivers and passengers. “The safety regime inside companies and inside government has been spent so much time designing our cars to be as safe as possible for the people inside them,” Tomer says.
But now we’re noticing what we’ve been missing outside the vehicle.”

One could make the argument that the strong connection between safety and transit in large cities makes cities like New York, San Francisco into outliers. But if the safest cities are the ones with the fewest drivers and fewest private cars, places like Tampa or Charlotte could see big safety improvements if they beefed up their public transportation options.

“Having a balanced set of investments, including mass transit, is going to be an important piece of the puzzle,” said Polly Trottenberg, director of New York City’s Department of Transportation. “There is a lot you’re hearing that cities are doing focused on roadway design, on enforcement, on education that any city can do to make their streets safer—to make them feel more acceptable to all users, and make them not only about cars.”

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Homeless, But Part of Society in Montreal

When city officials decided to revamp the notoriously drug-ridden Place Émilie-Gamelin in the center of downtown Montreal, they didn’t push out the many homeless people and addicts who live in the park. Instead, they made the park a focal point for the city’s efforts to socially integrate for the homeless.

Along with housing and job assistance for the homeless, Montreal has encouraged a philosophy of what city officials call “social inclusion” to bring the homeless into the broader society—a policy that started under former Mayor Denis Coderre and has continued under current Mayor Valérie Plante. In March she announced a three-year, $6 million plan to address homelessness.

On a recent sunny summer afternoon in Émilie-Gamelin, people sat at picnic benches, listening to a concert and watching families play ping-pong in the park plaza. Among them was Paul, a well-groomed man dressed in gym attire. “I was just passing by. I like being here because there’s so much going on,” said Paul, who didn’t want to give his full name. He’s 50 and a Montreal native. Paul is one of the homeless people who stay at Émilie-Gamelin. He ended up on the streets, he said, because of addiction.

In a city of 1.75 million, advocates estimate Montreal’s homeless population at about 15–20,000 people based on point-in-time counts. They say the inclusion approach is based on the radical idea that the homeless aren’t just a public relations or services problem to be fixed: They’re members of the larger community. And social inclusion of homeless people can start with small gestures, such as other city residents acknowledging their shared humanity.

“It’s a significant element that the previous and the current administration both subscribe to, and that is to think of homeless people as fellow citizens first—not pariahs and not to be left in exclusion, but to find ways to bring people back into society and reduce the conflict that often exists… between homeless and non-homeless people,” said Matthew Pearce, president and chief executive officer of the Old Brewery Mission, the city’s largest nonprofit organization focused on the homeless.

The outreach is especially important for Canada’s most marginalized groups. The city hosted workshops in Cabot Square on the west side of Montreal this summer that showcased the artistry of the homeless indigenous community living near the plaza. A collaboration between city planners and the homeless who were being pushed out by new luxury condo development in the area, the workshops featured homeless Inuit artisans carving stone and teaching participants about their indigenous cultures.

“[The planners] tried to figure out, ‘Well, what can we do to make sure you still have your community space?’,” said Adrienne Campbell, director of the nonprofit Projets Autochtones du Québec, which helps indigenous Canadians find shelter and services. “It’s great for the people themselves who are homeless but it’s also fantastic for building bridges with the public, who are getting to learn from the homeless. It brings a positive cultural space where normally their culture is pushed to the side.”

The effect of the social inclusion programming has yielded noticeable dividends, Campbell said. “People are more respectful when they’re in the park space. The people who are homeless participate more in the activities so that’s been really positive,” she said.

“That social interaction is so important,” said Rosannie Filato, a city councilor and member of the executive committee responsible for homelessness policy. “We have to consider them our neighbors,” with “a smile and that ‘Hello, how are you?’”

This way of thinking about the homeless is a shift from previous strategy focused on solely meeting basic needs, Pearce said. “It certainly was the way in Montreal in the past—and the Old Brewery Mission itself was a part of that. A sense that… we’re talking about lost souls. We ought not to have too much in the way of aspirations for their future. Just give them a bed, a meal—that’s the best you can imagine.”  

They rethought that vision at the Mission, he said. “Before we condemn people to a life of homelessness… we have to believe in them and see if that belief in them is well-founded, rather than assuming from the start that there’s no hope.”

The programs at Place Émilie-Gamelin have helped foster a special dynamic between different communities, according to Melodie Cordeaux, whose nonprofit group Société de Développement Social took up residency in a small wooden kiosk for the summer to offer services and support to anyone in need who wandered by. She says she is a former addict herself and was once homeless as well. “I think it’s necessary for both sides to use the space. I think it’s really great that there’s some families playing there as there’s homeless people sleeping or resting,” said Cordeaux. “There is a certain harmony.”

But some believe that the city’s agenda for inclusion is undermined by pervasive discrimination. Fadhi Darag, a 61-year-old homeless man in Émilie-Gamelin, said he suspects he’s been harassed by Montreal police repeatedly because he’s black. “It seems to me nothing changed,” Darag said. “They give you a ticket for sleeping in the street, and they gave me two times the tickets. It’s black discrimination and it’s racist.”

Montreal police recently increased training on working with the homeless after the police fatally shot a homeless man near the Old Brewery Mission in January 2017, claiming he lunged at them with a knife. Filato, the city councilor, acknowledged a need to develop more humane policing.

“Security is for sure a priority for the administration, but at the same time there can’t be different policies for those who are homeless on a bench or somebody else who is sitting on a bench.” Filato said the city administration is exploring a non-emergency hotline to report situations with the homeless without automatically triggering police response.

While there remains work to do, activists believe the city has made great strides. “We have a really great grassroots community and openness from the city,” Campbell said.

“There’s also a lot of horrible factors that need to be addressed, like prostitution, human trafficking, indigenous women—those are gigantic issues,” she added. “But all these things that promote social inclusion and positive community are helpful in combating those other areas. Ultimately you need the political will and a mayor who is going to champion that and say ‘No, no, we are not going to treat homeless people badly and we’re not going to push them away.’”

For Paul, on a warm August afternoon in Place Émilie-Gamelin, it was working. “I’m sitting here and I’m looking around,” he said, his face tilted up at the sun. “And I just feel like I’m a part of the city.”

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