Where It’s Legal to Reverse the Vote of the People

It took about 45,000 Washington, D.C., voters to pass a ballot initiative this June raising the minimum wage for tipped workers. It took only eight city council members out of 13 (and a ton of public pressure) to begin the process of repealing it only a few months later. This wasn’t a bug in democracy. In D.C., and many cities and states across the U.S., it’s part of democracy’s design.

Citizen-initiated ballot measures like Initiative 77, whose short life flamed out dramatically in D.C. this year, give citizens a voice in deciding real policy matters at both the state and local levels. Recent ones have addressed everything from raising minimum wages, to extending term limits, to legalizing cannabis. And in the past two election cycles, there’s been a pronounced increase in activity: 2016 saw the highest number of citizen-initiated measures on ballots in a decade (76); and the 2018 cycle seems to be continuing the trend—69 of the 154 statewide measures on the ballot this year are citizen-initiated, according to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. But there’s been an equal and opposite response from lawmakers who are able to use their legislative power to limit, block, or reverse the votes, both preemptively, and after the fact.

“It’s not a new phenomenon by any means, but I haven’t seen this much brashness on the part of legislative bodies in the six years I’ve been covering these, or even in the last decade or so, said Josh Altic, who tracks ballot measures for Ballotpedia.

One high profile example came after South Dakota voters passed the (legally tenuous) Measure 22 in 2016, which would have enforced campaign ethics regulations, and reformed campaign finance laws. By 2017, following a drawn-out challenge to its legality, the very lawmakers who would have been accountable to it voted for its repeal. Even the Initiative 77 debate follows other clear precedents: The D.C. council has reversed four other measures in its history; and a similar minimum-wage bill for tipped workers was first passed by voters, and then swiftly dialed back by the state legislature in Maine last year.

“We’ve seen this as a concerted, conservative attack on direct democracy,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, the executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “Rather than actually mount a campaign on these issues and convince the public of a position, what we’re really seeing the politicians do is create a web of technicalities and hurdles to make it impossible to qualify for the ballot, or reduce it to a battle of lawyer’s fees.”

But the lawmakers who support these reversals argue that laws are made to evolve with the times; and should be able to be fixed if they’re flawed. “We should no more defend a bad law if it’s an Initiative, than we should defend a bad law if the Council wrote it,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said in a statement in support of Initiative 77’s repeal. “While it is important to recognize the significance of overturning an initiative, I believe it’s a bad law,” Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said in a public hearing last month.

As national interest groups pour money into supporting ballot initiative campaigns, says Altic, some “voter-led” initiatives have strayed farther from the grassroots—a narrative that helps legislators justify re-imagining laws they say were crafted by out-of-state big money, not citizens. In D.C., it was the Restaurant Opportunities Centers (ROC) United, a national workers’ rights organization, that submitted language for the initiative; and the National Restaurant group that swept in to oppose it. “People have started asking if these initiatives are really people vs. power, if they’re being taken over by out-of-state interests and out-of-state national groups with an agenda,” said Altic.

Low turn-out looks bad, too. And while Initiative 77 represented the will of the people that voted, anti-77 advocates argued, it was too small of a percentage: Turnout in the primary season was at a three-decade low. (It was that same percentage of voters that pushed many of the council members through the primaries, countered pro-77 activists.)

But there’s little disagreement that, after offering the choice up to people at the ballot boxes, it’s symbolically fraught to take it away. “Initiative 77 had no place on a primary ballot,” wrote former D.C. mayor Anthony Williams, who supported a repeal, in a Washington Post op-ed. But, he wrote, “[w]e are facing a situation that is never good for a democracy. The people appear to have spoken, and yet their elected officials are saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

Supporters of Initiative 77 put it more plainly: “This is suppressing the black vote,” Dianna Ramirez, the co-chair of ROC United, told CityLab in September. The voters in the Wards who supported Initiative 77—and the population most affected by it—were disproportionately low-income people of color. “You tell people of color to come out and vote, and they did, and now you’re invalidating it. It’s unfathomable.”

Unfathomable, maybe, but legal

Besides giving voters a more direct voice in decision-making, “ballot initiatives are an answer to legislative grid-lock,” says Figueredo, “and a check on the corporate power” that might otherwise influence politicians. But some form of citizen-initiative introduction is only an option for voters in 26 states. (No states have added the option since the 1970s, according to Williams, and they’ve been advised against doing so by the National Conference of State Legislators). But in most of them, citizen-driven measures are also eligible for legislative alteration.

Two states (New Mexico and Maryland) only allow citizens to introduce a veto-referendum process, meaning they can challenge laws passed by the legislature, but they can’t propose entirely new laws. Three more (Illinois, Mississippi, and Florida) only allow citizens to initiate constitutional amendments, not state statutes, which are technically harder for the state to overturn—but not impossible to undermine. To change a constitutional amendment, voters always need to approve it. When Florida passed a citizen-driven amendment legalizing medical marijuana, though, the legislature turned around and banned smoking medical marijuana, making implementing the first law harder. (The same preemption strategy that states have used to limit city laws.)

Those technicalities leave only 21 states where state statutes can truly be introduced by citizens. Of those, only two states (Arizona and California) have actually made it illegal to change an initiative substantively without putting it back to the voters.

The rest? Places where they’re fair game for reversal. There’s even a final, most permissive category of 11 states (and D.C.) that can change or repeal initiatives at will, without any restrictions on how soon, or with what majority the legislative body can act.

When lawmakers identify a measure they don’t like, they typically taken one of three routes, says Altic. “One is to pass restrictions on the process; two is to repeal the actual initiative; and three has been to make compromises,” he said.

Restrictions have often taken the form of “meta-ballot measures about ballot measures,” says Altic, usually on the restrictive side. In 2017, 186 bills in 33 states were introduced with the intent to change the initiative process, according to Ballotpedia. This November, South Dakota voters will decide on a measure that would ban out-of-state contributions to citizens’ initiatives. (Similar bills failed in Arizona and North Dakota last year.) Other states have regulated the number of signatures necessary to get an initiative on the ballot, or restricted the eligibility of signature-gatherers themselves (they must be local volunteers, not paid staff).

Repeals are the most straightforward way to get rid of measures the legislature doesn’t like—but leaders can also just ignore them, or delay their implementation. After Maine voters passed a Medicaid expansion initiative by a 59-40 margin in 2017, Governor Paul LePage has simply refused to implement it, even after a state judge ordered him to comply.

And compromises can soften the blow: Instead of pushing through the more complete repeal, which was initially on the table, Mendelson introduced a revised version of the repeal bill in the days before the October vote, and that is what the council voted to pass. It scraps the wage increases, but introduces new legislation to prevent wage theft and sexual harassment, which 77 was meant to address.

Power can be grabbed back

There are political consequences to taking any of these approaches, even in the states where repeal is viable. “The reason you don’t see it all the time is because if this initiative passes by a large margin then [reversing it] is not a popular decision to make,” said Altic.

Choosing to defy the same voters who have voted these politicians into office, and can vote them out, is risky. “What this ultimately comes down to is, somehow [politicians] trust the voters to put them in office but they’re not trusting the voters to understand what they need for their community,” said Figuerado.

Still, if the states overturn voters’ decisions, there is precedent for states themselves to be challenged. When Arizona attempted to reject a 2015 citizen-led ballot initiative that created an independent commission to oversee redistricting (and attempt to prevent gerrymandering), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the citizens’ favor and upheld the measure.

And rather than be disillusioned with the voting process if cities or states negate their vote, voters can be motivated to reclaim agency. In Maine, a bitter fight over the state election process swung back and forth over the course of multiple ballot measures: After voters approved a ranked-choice voting system in 2016, Governor LePage attempted to delay implementing the system until 2022. In June 2018, voters were able to weigh in again, this time to veto the law delaying it. That measure passed with more points than the first referendum did—the people prevailed.

“I think we are going to continue to see this trend, because this is ultimately a question about power and who has power,” said Figuerado. “I like to say the fourth branch of government is the people: Elections matter.”

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Is Transit Doomed in the U.S.? Discuss.

Randal O’Toole, the well-known anti-transit gadfly, recently joined transportation consultant Jarrett Walker in Washington, D.C., for a debate about the future of public transit. The rival pundits have sparred about public transportation many times on their Antiplanner and Human Transit blogs, but this was the first time they’d ever met; they even ate breakfast together at the Lincoln Waffle Shop across from Ford’s Theatre.

As it turns out, the men have more in common than you might think: For starters, both began thinking about urban transportation in Portland, Oregon.

Before he became one of the best-known American critics of government-operated transit, O’Toole was an Oregon State student intern, working on a transportation plan for the city in the 1970s; at the same time, Walker was a Portland teenager living through a commuter revolution that would inspire him to become a go-to international consultant for redesigning transit networks (and an occasional CityLab contributor).

O’Toole says he sees in Walker another path he could have taken. “In a sense, Jarrett’s work is an extension of what I was doing in 1970s: finding low-cost ways to increase ridership,” said O’Toole. “If my life had gone a little different, I might be doing the same thing.”

Today the two Oregonians live only 150 miles apart, but they met in nation’s capital for two quasi-debates: a briefing at Capitol Hill and a forum at the libertarian Cato Institute, with which O’Toole has been affiliated since 1995. The discussions come at a critical time for mass transit in the U.S.: ride-hailing and other technologies have lured away riders in many cities, even as the Trump administration has stalled federal support.

O’Toole opened with a whirlwind of statistical bullet points documenting the transit death spiral. He seized on the latest national transit ridership data, but his message was vintage O’Toole: Government funding of public buses, trains, light rail, and streetcars has failed and should stop. “I’m fundamentally pessimistic about the future of the transit industry,” O’Toole said. “Transit ridership has been declining steadily and it’s declining in all major urban areas, whether it’s rail or bus. I don’t see hope of recovery because the forces that are causing it to decline are not going away.”

Subsidies can’t overcome what shapes people’s preferences, O’Toole argued, and what people want is to live out in the suburbs and drive their cars. In recent years, transit ridership has really only grown in places where there’s been a dramatic boom in downtown jobs, such as Seattle.

Proof of this principle: city buses that drive around nearly empty. “We’re still buying 40-passenger buses, but the average number of people riding a bus today is about nine people at one time,” O’Toole said. “Occasionally, they might be full at rush hour, but they’re mostly not.”

There they go. (O’Toole/Cato Institute)

“I think transit agencies right now are running on hot air,” O’Toole said. By his rough calculations, the fundamental promises of public transportation—that they increase job accessibility for lower-income working people and reduce carbon emissions—aren’t actually panning out, and most cities should mothball their fleets. “Transit will survive in New York, and it may survive in five or six other urban areas, but transportation planners in the other 430 urban areas in the United States need to start thinking about planning a shutdown of their transit systems.”

But wouldn’t that strand millions of working people who can’t afford a private car? Not so—O’Toole predicts that microtransit services and driverless cars can fill the gaps. Also: Remember those viral stories of good Samaritans giving people free cars? Everyone just do that. “It turns out you want to make sure someone can become employed and stay employable, give them a cheap car,” he said. “Don’t give them a free transit pass because odds are a transit pass won’t get them to where they want to go.”

For Walker, a consultant who works on improving transit systems in cities around the world, the narrative that O’Toole spins about declining transit ridership doesn’t frame the story quite right—it’s zoomed out too far. “A lot of what seems like an urban-rural culture war is actually just people at different densities understandably trying to solve the immediate problems of where they live. The national statistics are useless. [The decline of urban trips since 1976] is also a history of urban density, of course, because transit is a response to density.”

Since that change, he said, ridership has fluctuated within a reasonable range. “I don’t think we’re looking at a catastrophe,” Walker said. While “transit death spirals can occur,” they only become truly fatal when local leadership fails to respond appropriately. Take Seattle, for example, whose ridership growth has defied national trends. “Once you get to the point where everyone is screaming about transit, which is where Seattle was 15 years ago, leadership responds to it.”

Walker’s book Human Transit might be the closest thing that transportation planners have to a pocket Constitution, and he argues that the principles behind his work are simple geometry and biology. “If we think of personal freedom as an outcome, that is something that we can define mathematically.” Public transit is about solving a question to which cities already know the answer: “How many adult elephants would fit in a wine glass?”

Our reaction to that absurd question, Walker said, is visceral, because it’s an axiomatic certainty about physical space, something that we’ll still know the answer to in the future. The same goes for cars in cities. “The definition of a city is lots of people living close together. A city is shortage of space per person,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how many people want to drive cars—it’s how many will be able to drive cars. It cannot continue this way because we will run out of space.”

Yeah, he’s talking about that classic congestion meme.

Credit: City of Munster, Germany

Technology won‘t change geometry, whether the cars are privately owned, hailed from an app, or driven by a robot. There’s just not enough space to accommodate them, and we won’t gain any more space from increasing travel speeds or decreasing stopping space. In fact, driverless cars could make congestion much worse, thanks to induced demand.

“If you make a desired thing easier, people will do it more,” Walker said. “It’s the reason you cannot let the market decide, because we will run out of room more quickly than you can imagine.” He used an axiom of biology: “The basic math of life is you have to spend less energy seeking a resource than you will get from that resource. If life can get a resource more easily with less effort, it does.”

That same scenario could also play out in the consumption of land, rather than road space. “Randal lives in a cabin in the woods in Camp Sherman, and I could afford that cabin in the woods too, but the reason I don’t is because it would horrible to drive out there on the weekends,” Walker said. “But if I didn’t have to drive, I might, and so would everyone else in Portland. And we’d chop down the woods.”

Yeah, but what about all those mostly empty buses roaming around town? The notion of public transit as innately wasteful misses how the goals of ridership and coverage intersect as it relates to service. “It’s a very common misunderstanding about transit economics. People see that empty bus and they think that transit is wasteful,” Walker said. “But it is much better for the bus to be too big than for the bus to be too small for whatever demand you’re going to incur that day. It also costs a lot of money to pay drivers to take the bus back to the garage and switch it out for a different-sized bus.”

Rather than directly rebutting each bullet point on O’Toole’s laundry list, Walker made a more values-based case, stressing that the big problems public transportation systems now face come down to just a few things: emissions, labor, and space. And those can be addressed with fleets of electric vehicles that are either large—think electric buses—or small e-boosted bikes and scooters. He’s optimistic about self-driving technology, but believes that their truly transformative deployment will be in city bus fleets, where they could dramatically trim labor costs.

The arguing between the two parties, such as it was, was generally civil, and the two pundits also found some points of agreement. Both said that we ought to be paying the real cost of roads through congestion pricing (though Walker argued that the funds raised from this should go to public transit as an alternative). And Walker stressed that transit, and the mobility it offers, is fundamentally about freedom, which is an idea that libertarians might sympathize with. “If you believe in the free market, you’ve got to face the fact that the free market is telling us that you’ve got to build more places that will need transit. If San Francisco were such a horrible place, it would not be so expensive to live there.”

The two also found one other bit of semi-common ground on urban federalism, and the notion that dense cities should make their own decisions. “There probably is more of a future for flexible funding,” Walker said. “Where the federal government stops telling us how much money we can have for highways and for transit and just tells communities, here’s money for transportation.”

In an email afterward, O’Toole said that, while Walker’s arguments didn’t sway his opinions, “I learned a lot from him, mainly in private conversations about the state of transportation in various cities around the world. I doubt that it will happen, but it would be fun to visit a few of those cities with him so we could see the world through each other’s eyes.”

In the end, the gap between their transit worldviews looks a lot like the urban-rural divide. “Jarrett and I fundamentally agree on a lot of things,” O’Toole said at the debate. “I think our disagreements come from his spending more time looking at really dense areas, and my spending more time looking at low-density areas.”

“Let’s understand that we all live our own perspectives and our own values,” Walker responded. “We both live in Oregon. I live in the middle of Portland. Randal gets to live out in the woods.”

O’Toole cut in. “By the way, when I lived in Portland, I did have a cabin in the woods and it only took me 40 minutes to get there,” he said. “And it would have been faster if they’d built the Mount Hood Freeway instead of the light rail line.”

“It would have been a lot faster if we tore down a whole swath of neighborhoods that are now worth a combined market value of probably several billion,” Walker said. “Those are the choices; we all get to make choices.”

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The ‘Cafes’ Where Women Go to Breastfeed

BROOKLYN—Evelyn Velasquez sat in the basement multipurpose room of the Brownsville Neighborhood Health Action Center with her 11-month-old son, Jonathan, at her breast. A mother of four, she’s a regular attendee of the Baby Cafe in the Brownsville Neighborhood of Brooklyn, the third to open in New York since January 2018, where she receives free lactation services and a support group made of facilitators and other moms in her community.

For Velasquez, the cafe meets a critical need for new moms. “You need that extra support behind you, that guidance, and to release some stress,” Velasquez said. “It’s a place where you can come, let your hair down, and talk to the other mothers about breastfeeding and other things.”   

Stemming from a model that originated in the U.K. in 2000, these New York City cafes are part of a broader, citywide effort to support new mothers, combat the stigma of breastfeeding, and educate employers and the general public about laws protecting a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, and especially in the workplace. The goal is to decrease the barriers to breastfeeding, which experts say has significant health benefits for both mother and baby.

Over the years, New York State has adopted a slate of laws that provide for pregnant and nursing mothers, from a law to protect breastfeeding in public, to access to lactation support and counseling via the Affordable Care Act, to time and a private space to pump in the workplace.

Despite this, low breastfeeding rates remain common across all demographics. They’re especially prevalent in black and brown communities, where access to breastfeeding support is limited.

“The higher the percentage of African Americans that live in a community, the less likely they are to receive lactation education,” says Shameika Williams, the program coordinator for Brooklyn Breastfeeding Empowerment Zone (BFEZ), which launched in 2013 by the Center for Health Equity (CHE), part of the NYC Department of Health, with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. “When you live in a community that’s been historically not invested in, you’re not receiving the same type of services and support in the hospital.”

Shameika Williams puts African print on her daughter during a celebration of Black Breastfeeding Awareness week. (Rebecca Bellam)

While state laws ostensibly make these services available for free, bureaucratic loopholes mean they remain inaccessible, and getting the answers to basic breastfeeding questions can be expensive. A consultation alone can cost around $300 for an in-home visit. Factoring in the potential for a follow up visit ($250), a back-to-work plan ($250), and a weaning consult ($125), lactation consultants begin to look like more of a luxury than a necessity to some moms, especially ones in lower-income neighborhoods.

In New York City in particular, breastfeeding rates are lowest among the non-Hispanic black community, with 26.3 percent of women exclusively breastfeeding their children eight weeks after birth. But they can’t be considered high among any demographic, with 31.7 percent of Hispanic women and 38.4 percent of white women reporting breastfeeding at eight weeks after birth, below the six months of breastfeeding recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Many of the hospitals that service black and brown communities don’t have certified lactation consultants. Finding accessible support postpartum is also a challenge. The Brownsville Baby Cafe helps to “address systemic racism and ensures that communities that have been historically not invested in now can provide equitable choices for people who reside in the community,” says Williams.

Women at the Baby Cafe said that despite the health benefits, there are a number of reasons why they might opt for formula over the breast, including questions about whether or not they’re producing enough milk, how to get their baby to latch on, and how to deal with pain while breastfeeding.

Although the Baby Cafe model has been in practice for nearly twenty years, the UK still has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world. However, 75 percent of the 6,300 mothers UK Baby Cafes supported in 2017 said that the cafes helped them to breastfeed longer, and 81 percent said that they breastfed for as long as they intended to.

Tamara Hawkins, a certified lactation consultant and nurse practitioner who operates the Harlem Baby Café, said the cafes also help confront social stigma by empowering women and educating families.

“Mothers often have to contend with their mothers, their grandmothers, their uncles, who are maybe not as educated but are the main support groups in their households,”said Hawkins. “They grew up feeding their babies bottles of six to eight ounces at a time, adding cereal to it, putting jars of peaches in it. That’s what was normal then, so learning a new normal takes time.”

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CityLab Daily: The Sudden Growth of Hurricane Michael

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What We’re Following

Stormwatch: Hurricane Michael made landfall Wednesday afternoon as one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States. While we’re only just learning of the devastation left in the storm’s wake, the Florida Panhandle’s greater concentration of older houses and mobile homes already makes the possible damage more extensive. (USA Today) Thousands of trees are down in Tallahassee and winds have ripped roofs from buildings, including a Panama City high school gym where some people had taken shelter. (NPR) As the storm heads north through Georgia and the Carolinas, it has destroyed homes and businesses in beach towns, caused power outages for 750,000 across three states, and two people have already been reported dead. (Vox)

And yet, it was only on Tuesday that the Category 4 storm intensified, bringing 150 mile-per-hour winds and storm surges that swallowed the coast. Robinson Meyer writes that a combination of very warm ocean water and calm air caused Michael’s “rapid intensification.” While scientists won’t formally know how climate change played a factor in Hurricane Michael for several months, a chief meteorologist for Miami’s NBC station compared global warming’s effect on hurricanes to “changing the speed limit on a highway.” Today on CityLab: The Sudden, Shocking Growth of Hurricane Michael.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

How America Fails at Communicating Flood Risks

We have good data about flood risks. The challenge is getting it to people when they need it, in a way that’s useful.

Carolyn Kousky

Paris Is Preparing for a Warming World

The French capital, under Mayor Anne Hidalgo, could be a model for how cities can mitigate and plan for climate change. But change has not come easily.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Town That Doesn’t Exist

Slab City, buried deep in the California desert, is a land of squatters, artists, and migrants—and few rules. In a new book, an architect and a photographer document “the last free place.”

Sarah Holder

Americans Strongly Dislike PC Culture

Youth isn’t a good proxy for support of political correctness, and race isn’t either.

Yascha Mounk

Interpreting Africa’s Visible, and Invisible, Borders

In the eighth “Invisible Borders” road trip, a group of African artists and writers send dispatches from the continent’s cities and border towns.

Sala Elise Patterson

Mo Money, Mo Problems

As Amazon announced a new $15 minimum wage for its workers last week, reactions ranged from praise to scrutiny. And the map above from the Pew Research Center reminds us that there’s another way you’ve got to look at the pay raise: It’s called RPP, or “regional price parities.” That’s the measure of the real purchasing power of a dollar in any place based on the cost of local goods and services. Pew puts the comparison in the terms of Amazon warehouse locations: In Spartanburg, South Carolina, a $15 hourly wage is like earning $17.10 an hour in the rest of the country, but in Kent, Washington, a Seattle suburb, that’s really only like making $13.57 an hour.

CityLab context: Amazon stepped up for workers. It should do the same for HQ2; and The case for a local minimum wage.

What We’re Reading

The emerging trends that will shape real estate in 2019 (Curbed)

Private-equity investment in infrastructure is booming (Wall Street Journal)

Uber-funded research looks at how to measure if self-driving cars are jerks (Washington Post)

Michigan governor’s race tests Flint’s residents (New York Times)

Video: How GPS can make you a better runner (Vox)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to hello@citylab.com.

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Europe’s Capital Cities Keep Getting Richer and Younger

The magnetism of Europe’s capital cities is getting ever stronger, sucking in more wealth and young people, and further widening the gulf between the continent’s metropolitan centers and their hinterlands. Such is the somewhat alarming picture presented by the new regional yearbook from Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistical office, which reveals a continent that’s continuing to polarize.

Eurostat’s report shines a light on many trends you might expect, such as the ongoing prosperity of Germany and Scandinavia. Other factors emerge to complicate the picture. Economic progress has actually been swiftest in regions of the former Eastern Bloc, also (perhaps less surprisingly) the region with the greatest gaps between rural and urban living conditions. And while countries hit by economic crisis, such as Greece, still reveal the toughest conditions, the sheer pressure on city-dwellers is starting to tell even in Europe’s wealthiest cities, with a housing squeeze tangibly impoverishing many urbanites in Denmark and Switzerland.

Capital cities and Central Europe get richer

Per-capita GDP has risen most sharply in capital regions across the continent, with the biggest leaps coming from the Dublin region, followed by Inner West London, and the regions around Bucharest, Warsaw, and Bratislava.

The success of these three Central European capitals highlights the region’s departure from the economic doldrums. Since before the millennium, countries in this region have been hemorrhaging residents, as their citizens move westwards in search of better jobs and opportunities. In the period 2007-2016, however, these countries seem to be offering more chances for economic self-betterment. With the exceptions of Slovenia, Croatia, and the Czech Republic’s ex-industrial North Bohemia, every region east of the Iron Curtain has experienced at least some form of GDP bounce. This is good news, but it comes after years of acute crisis following the fall of communism, thus showing improvements from a fairly low bar.

Meanwhile, further west there are causes for concern as countries tend to polarize between poorer and richer regions; the U.K. in particular shows an especially patchy growth map. While some sections of London remain extremely (if unequally) wealthy, per capita GDP has dropped immediately to its north, above all in most of the sprawling Yorkshire region, where an ongoing journey from an industrial economy decimated in the 1980s towards a service-oriented one seems to be neither complete nor entirely successful.

GDP changes by region, 2007-2016. Regions shaded blue experienced growth, with the darkest blue representing growth of 10 percent or more. Regions shaded pink saw GDP shrink, with the darkest pink experiencing a reduction of 10 percent or more. (Eurostat)

The Usual Suspects Stay Strong

The map above doesn’t show the full picture, however. The European map of wealth growth may have changed, but it has not shifted so radically that the overall picture of the continents’ richest and poorest regions isn’t immediately recognizable.

For a more stable picture of overall household wealth, look to the map below, of per-capita purchasing power across the continent. In this case, the most consistent seats of European wealth remain familiar: Scandinavia, the German-speaking lands, the Low Countries, Paris, London, and to an extent, Southern England and Northern Italy.

Even here, the onward march of capitals is clear. Beyond the stellar results for southern Germany, all the areas with especially high purchasing power are capitals, notably, London, Paris, Brussels, and Oslo. Meanwhile one lividly pink spot sticks out in Central Europe: the Ilfov region surrounding Bucharest, whose citizens’ purchasing power now stands in stark contrast to the rest of Romania.

Primary Income Per Inhabitant, 2015. This map shows income levels in an artificial currency called Purchasing Power Consumption Standard (PPCS), created by Eurostat for purposes of comparison.

Capital cities stay young, as Germany ages

Capital cities may be getting wealthier, but they aren’t necessarily getting older—at least not as quickly as their surrounding regions. Overall, the demographic direction revealed in the maps is somewhat alarming, with large sections of the map shaded in the dark orange that signifies an especially high median age.

As the map shows, Germany’s population is aging fast. Indeed, it has the largest proportion of regions with a median age of 47.5 years or over in the continent. In eastern Germany, cities such as Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden now represent the only relatively youthful pockets.

Median age by region. The palest regions have a median age of lower than 40. The darkest regions have a median age of 47.5 or higher. (Eurostat)

Germany’s east side isn’t alone when it come to the aging of its small cities and countryside. The regions north of Hamburg and the rural districts that sandwich the heavily industrialized Ruhr region both have notably high average ages, suggesting that here too, the countryside is being drained of young people, pushing these regions towards becoming agricultural and retirement communities with little urging younger locals to stay.

This doesn’t just reflect an absence of opportunities for young people outside the larger cities. Places like Germany’s North Sea Coast are increasingly attracting retirees from Berlin, people who may be struggling with higher rents (in a city where renters outnumbers owners) and are no longer tied to the city by work. This influx is encouraging a situation where opportunities remain scarce even as housing costs rise.

On a continent-wide level, it was in fact capital city regions, by contrast, that had the lowest median ages for all regions in seven countries—the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, and Bulgaria. It can at least be deduced from this that the high costs for which such cities are becoming notorious are not yet so great that they are actively deterring young people from trying their luck there, even if it is in tough circumstances.

There are still signs elsewhere, however, that younger people are being simultaneously attracted to capital cities by their opportunities but are unwilling or (one suspects) unable to love in their cores. In France, Greece, and the Czech Republic, it was not in each capital that the lowest median ages were found, but in surrounding suburban and ex-urban regions where living costs were generally lower. Europe’s young people may be flocking towards major cities, but this pattern suggests a suburbanization of young people that may only become more perceptible in years to come.

A widening gulf

Another key map in the report highlights just how much Europe’s regions are diverging. The image below relates the GDP of urban regions to their national averages, with blue shading showing rates above national averages and orange showing rates below. Again the U.K. shows cause for concern, with the London region powering ahead of the national average and almost all of its former industrial heartland in central and northern England falling behind. Poland’s contrasts are also notably sharp, with Warsaw far wealthier than the national average while its rural hinterland just to the south is far poorer.

The gulf opening here is not just between metropolitan and rural regions (such as it is around Warsaw) but between first and second-tier cities. Major urban centers such as Bremen, Germany, and Łódź, Poland, are also falling behind their national averages, suggesting that the success of the largest cities may be having a somewhat cannibalistic effect on other major towns in the same country.

Regional GDP compared to national average. Orange shading represents a GDP lower than the national average, with the darkest shade showing a GDP of 85 percent or lower compared to the national a whole. Blue shaded regions represent GDPs higher than national averages, the darkest shade representing 130 percent or more of national average. (Eurostat)

Housing under stress

The data suggests no let-up in the onward march of capital cities. Look closer, however, and you can find evidence that the concentration of wealth and opportunities in these places is producing measurable strain. Perhaps the clearest indication is the cost of housing. Eurostat’s charts show that, for many city-dwellers who are not at the upper end of the social pyramid, their home base’s success may well feel like a mixed blessing.

The chart below reveals the number of people who must pay 40 percent or more of their income towards housing costs—a level beyond which managing other expenses can become problematic.

Housing overburden rate by degree of urbanization.The figures represent the proportion of people who must pay 40 percent or more of their income towards housing costs. (Eurostat)

The largest motor behind housing stress still seems to be economic crisis. By far the most serious situation is to be found in Greece, where 45 percent of city-dwellers and 35 percent of rural residents were overburdened. Serbia also shows serious problems, as does the Bulgarian countryside.

It’s not surprising that residents of countries where jobs are scarce and low-paying might struggle to cover their housing costs. Alarm bells should nonetheless be ringing in the wealthier sections of Western Europe as well. Denmark’s cities show poorly, with around 23 percent of their residents spending at least 40 percent of their income on a place to live. German, Swiss, and Belgian cities also scored badly, suggesting an emerging trend where the housing market is failing to keep up with galloping demand in wealthier cities.

Brought together, these figures create a picture that will look familiar to both Europeans and North Americans. A country’s largest city (which is almost always a capital in Europe) offers by far the best income levels, even in countries which were struggling economically until quite recently. As these core metropolises grow, rural regions and second-tier cities are often left behind as their GDP drops and their population ages. Meanwhile, as people scramble to capitals, finding a way to access their opportunities while finding an affordable way to live seems ever more elusive.

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How America Fails at Communicating Flood Risks

For the majority of Americans, their home is the biggest purchase they will make and the largest contributor to their total net worth.  And for renters and owners alike, our homes represent security and sanctuary.

Few people would choose to live somewhere they knew would be flooded with unsanitary water, sending mold up the walls. Few would choose a home where repairing flood damage would send them into debt, or replacing damaged contents would be a financial hardship. Few would buy a home where increasing risks would drive down its value.

We may not need information on the risks of flooding very often. But we certainly do when we’re deciding where to live or whether to move.

An economist will say that for markets to work efficiently, participants in that market need full information. Without it, they make decisions that are suboptimal. When it comes to housing markets, buyers and renters do not get the flood-risk information they need. There are five main ways that the current system fails them.

1. The federal government and housing markets wrongly suggest that flood risk is a yes/no question.

It is federal law that federally backed or regulated lenders require flood insurance on property loans in “Special Flood Hazard Areas.” This is a confusing term that means the 100-year floodplain, as mapped by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A 100-year floodplain is where there is at least a 1-percent chance of a flood occurring in any year, or a 26-percent chance of a least one flood over the course of a 30-year mortgage. Lenders disclose this information to borrowers prior to closing. Some states also mandate that sellers disclose this information. There are no federal requirements that renters must be informed about flood risk.

Not surprisingly, then, location in or outside a Special Flood Hazard Area has been internalized in housing markets. Many studies have documented price discounts for properties in the 100-year floodplain.

This, though, is the first failure of flood-risk communication.  Properties are either “in” the flood zone or they are “out” of it. This creates a false perception that on one side of an imaginary line, homes are safe, while on the other, they are at risk of flooding. But whether a home is at risk of flooding is a matter of degree.

Some parts of the 100-year floodplain are much riskier than others. And there is risk outside the line, too. In fact, roughly a third of all flood claims now occur outside this area, due to more extreme weather events or outdated or inaccurate maps. (Rainfall-related flooding is often not used in drawing the 100-year floodplain on FEMA maps.) Some areas subject to coastal storm surge are not in mapped Special Flood Hazard Areas.

2. People lack information on potential damages to their property.

Today, risk communication focuses almost exclusively on the probability of a flood: Generally, prospective renters and homeowners are not given any information on what losses to expect. So people may have no knowledge about what a flood could mean financially for them. How much structural damage could occur, and how much damage will their contents sustain? Will a flood cause $1,000 of damage, or $10,000, or $100,000?  How likely is each of those scenarios? Risk requires us to discuss probability and impact together.

This information also needs to be presented in ways that are easy for people to interpret. For example, how many times has this home flooded in the past? How much damage did it cause? Buyers of used cars are alerted to prior flood damage through a salvage title, but you can’t get this type information for a house. There is no database keeping track of which homes were flooded when, or which homes have had flood damage, and how much.

3. FEMA keeps relevant information under wraps.

Relevant information regarding flood risk—beyond just potential damages—needs to be part of any decision about where to live, but is not available to the public. For example, FEMA keeps a list of repeatedly flooded properties. A property on this list will flood frequently, could have higher flood-insurance premiums, and may have certain mitigation requirements and opportunities. But homebuyers are rarely alerted to this information, and neither are renters. Residents are also not informed of what level of disaster assistance they can expect in the event of a flood (usually little, contrary to public perceptions).

4. Many Americans aren’t aware that their flood risk is increasing.

There are many parts of the country where flood risk is increasing due to erosion, sea-level rise, changes in pervious cover, or changing storm patterns. A nationwide study found that the 100-year floodplain is projected to increase, on average (nationwide), due to both development and climate change. In coastal areas, in particular, many studies predict rising flood risk in coming years.

There are many properties where the flood risk today is not what it will be in the future. This will have financial impacts for millions of households—insurance costs could rise and property values could fall—yet there is no system to inform people of changing flood risks.

5. The information we need is not where we can easily find it.

In recent years, multiple private, non-profit, and governmental tools have become available to assess climate-change-induced flood risk at the property level, both inland and on the coast. Although widely used by analysts, these tools are not integrated into the platforms that Americans use regularly when looking for housing.

It is unrealistic to expect average renters or homebuyers to know about or seek out this information on their own. It ought to be integrated into information sources they are already using—the multiple listing services that feed listings to sites such as Zillow and Redfin.

Flood-risk information needs to be fast, easy, and free. It should be available on demand—so you can pull it up on your phone while touring a new house or apartment.


As a society, we have good information and data about flood risks.  The challenge is getting it to people who need it, when they need it, and in a way that is useful.

We have the technology to integrate flood risk into every home sales and rental platform. With data gathered from satellites or home inspections, local governments could maintain online public databases showing which properties sustain flood damage. The NFIP and local governments could require disclosure concerning repetitive-loss areas. Legislators could strengthen flood-disclosure laws so they are more helpful to homebuyers, such as by requiring disclosure of prior flood events or potential damages.

There are hurdles to these solutions, but they are not insurmountable. With the right public-private partnerships, they are achievable in the near term. And as this hurricane season makes clear, we don’t have any time to lose.

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Interpreting Africa’s Visible, and Invisible, Borders

“Traveling from West Africa to Europe is easier than doing this trip we are trying to do,” explains Emeka Okereke. The 38-year-old Nigerian visual artist and writer is referring to the logistical challenges of his latest Invisible Borders Trans-African Road Trip.

Last week, Okereke and a dozen emerging African artists set off overland in a single van from Lagos, Nigeria, to Maputo, Mozambique, planning to traverse nearly 7,000 miles and nine countries, in 95 days. Sponsored by GoPro, Leica, and Open Society Foundations, and organized by Okereke’s Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers Organization, this road trip is the eighth he has produced since 2009.

“Carry Go.” The artists set off last week from Lagos, and have reached Enugu, Nigeria. (Kenechukwu Nwatu)

This year’s journey will mimic the route of the first wave of the Bantu Expansion, the millennia-long migration of Bantu-speaking people from their ancestral homeland, which borders present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, to Central, Eastern, and Southern Africa: The route was the site of a number of historically significant border conflicts. The journey’s participating artists will consider how that past affects people living on the borders today—and create art that attempts to make sense of it. “We try as much as possible to engage and meet people, make useful encounters and allow what we are going to create as artists to be informed by the experiences of those encounters,” Okereke says.

The group will visit cities and border towns in, and in between, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique. Among the cities they will visit are: Enugu, Yaounde, Garoua-Boulaï, Bangui, Bukavu, Kigali, Kamembe, Kampala, Lusaka, Harare, Mutare, and Maxixe.

Okereke is particularly attuned to the transformations taking place in African cities. The continent is urbanizing at breakneck speed (recently calculated to be much faster than previously thought) at the risk of the environment, health, security and social cohesion.

“Urbanization in Africa is actually where all of the confusion is coming. There is a lot of transformation going on, like the negotiation of land and how people live in the space,” he says. “There is also lot of talk about retaining our cultural values and traditions, which is super complex because we have different ethnic groups and languages coming together from different parts of the country, all clinging to one place. Also, there is pressure from the West to be designed like Paris, London, or New York. So everyday life in the city becomes about circumventing or navigating this constant change.”

An overhead view of Enugu, Nigeria, known as “Coal City” (Kenechukwu Nwatu)

The group will spend at most three days in each location, relying on local project managers to scout beforehand the artists and organizations they should meet. Not all experiences will be collective. The artists are encouraged to roam solo and go where encounters lead, even if it is to an artist outside the collective who wants to collaborate on the spot. Everyone regroups during weekly portfolio reviews on the road. Artwork and the archival footage will be shared through an app-based daily blog in English, French, Portuguese, and Kiswahili, and through a book and documentary film, both of which will be released in 2019.

“The ground upon which I stand.”  (Emeka Okereke)

The artists chosen for this year’s trip come from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Congo, and Morocco and include photographers, writers, filmmakers, and performance artists.

Based on past journeys, Okereke expects that, “As we travel, the van becomes a space for conversation where we process our experiences and talk about our ideas and reflections. We will have cameras and microphones inside to record everything, so it becomes a kind of archive.”

This sort of leisurely yet investigative cross-border movement is so rare in Africa in large part due to the difficulty of overland travel. In some areas, movement can be hampered by administratively arduous border crossings, poor and limited road infrastructure, especially between regions, and, of course, border conflicts. Okereke considers these challenges of movement one sign of the continent’s social, political and economic stagnation, contrary to the persistent Africa Rising narrative; and he attributes many of these difficulties to the arbitrary national borders and false divisions established during colonialism, ones that continue to define societies and fracture African society.

The travelers.

“We are using the body as an entity for the re-imagination of the imposed cartographies,” Okereke says. “That agency—to be Africans in these places—is also a responsibility to think in these spaces. That is the only claim we have to these places and beyond: that we are all strangers and we are asking ourselves what it means.”

“But we also understand being a stranger here was a result of a construct designed to keep us all apart in this way and not functioning, “ he says. “And this is what the trip is about really.”

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Fostering Innovation & Learning with the Teaching City

The world spends far more money on urban infrastructure than health care, and there are about four-times as many urban practitioners as health care providers, yet, up until last year, there was not a single teaching city. The City of Oshawa is hoping to start a new trend – similar to a teaching hospital. The City is now serving as a ‘teaching city,’ complete with urban interns and city-based research.

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Voices of 100%: Atlanta Works Toward Clean Energy for All — Episode 62 of Local Energy Rules Podcast

Across the U.S., over 80 cities have made commitments to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. As the largest such city in the South, the city of Atlanta has been a regional leader in evaluating how to succeed. In our fourth episode of Voices of 100%, a multi-part series of Local Energy Rules, Atlanta’s Energy Programs Manager Megan O’Neil speaks with John Farrell about the city’s relationship with its incumbent utility, what mix of renewable and energy efficiency makes sense, and how robust community engagement has helped ensure all residents will access the benefits of renewables and can help shape their city’s energy future.… Read More

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