CityLab Daily: ‘A Check Against Tyranny’

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What We’re Following

Taken for granted: Federal judges didn’t mince words Thursday when ruling against the Justice Department in its fight to withhold federal grant money from “sanctuary cities.” The ruling states that cities don’t have to provide federal immigration authorities with certain kinds of help—like notifying when an undocumented immigrant was in their custody or holding an inmate for 48 hours—to receive federal grant money, as BuzzFeed News reports. This deals a blow to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department, taking away a point of leverage in the cities-versus-feds immigration battle. The Republican-appointed judges, ruling from the 7th Circuit, said if Sessions had his way, “a check against tyranny is forsaken.” (Washington Post)

Marching for Columbine: Today’s National School Walkout for gun safety has high school students across the country marching to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. Vox has first-person accounts from 6 survivors of that massacre, and on CityLab, we have an update on the latest city-state preemption battle over gun control legislation: This time it’s in South Carolina.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Does Homeownership Really ‘Drive’ the Black-White Wealth Gap?

A new paper debunks various myths about the wealth gap between blacks and whites in the United States, and the methods for bridging it.

Tanvi Misra

What Happens When 1,000 Strangers Talk Race In L.A.?

Angelenos gathered at 100 dinners this week through a city-backed initiative to spark civic and civil dialogue.

Laura Bliss

The Weirdest Ways That U.S. Cities Are Celebrating Earth Day

From group oyster-shell bagging to a naked bike ride, some Earth Day events are more colorful than the standard festivals and tree plantings.

Alastair Boone

U.S. Homebuying Slows Down, But Not for Hispanics

During 2017, more than 167,000 Latinos became homeowners, significantly contributing to the country’s economy. However, doubts around immigration issues make their future in the real estate market uncertain.

Martín Echenique

Lyft Delivers Carbon-Neutral Rides

The ride-hailing company announced on Thursday that it plans to become one of the largest voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets in the world.

Laura Bliss


History Lesson

Scotney Castle (Hannah Denski/Shutterstock)

Long before pre-faded jeans or wannabe dive bars, there were “ruin follies.” While ruins have always captured the imagination, these fake ones became a big hit among Europe’s 18th-century aristocracy. The prefabricated, dilapidated buildings popped up from scratch, or from existing buildings that were destroyed to create a dramatic Gothic effect. This is the history of the fake dilapidated buildings that Europe couldn’t get enough of.


What We’re Reading

The end of the architect profile (Curbed)

There’s no good alternative to building more homes in expensive cities (Vox)

Data systems can be the air traffic control tower of urban mobility (Fast Company)

The canary in the coal pond (ProPublica)


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Before They Were Anti-Sanctuary, They Were Anti-Cannabis

On June 10, 2005, Felix Kha drove through a red light in Garden Grove, California.

In another city, in another year, he might have gotten away with a traffic fine. But when officers pulled him over, they spotted a small cloth bag on the passenger’s seat. Inside the bag was a small plastic container, and inside the container was less than a third of an ounce of cannabis. The cannabis was medically prescribed for the chronic pain he suffered from, he told them, presenting his doctor’s referral. And medical cannabis had been legal statewide since the Compassionate Use Act (Proposition 215) took effect in 1996.

The officers seized it anyway. Garden Grove wanted nothing to do with Proposition 215, it later argued in court. California had already acted unconstitutionally in passing it, and so the city would adhere to the federal government’s policy of cannabis prohibition instead. It was an argument being used by other conservative cities across the state, primarily in the Central Valley and along the southern coast.

By running the light, Kha had inadvertently run right into one of California’s most heated debates, one that has continued in some form or another for decades: Among a snarl of city, state, and federal players, which laws rule?

Today, California has solidified its position as a locus of federal resistance on multiple fronts. As of April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has three simultaneous lawsuits open against California’s state leadership, challenging their perceived over-reach when it comes to environmental protections,  property rights, and especially sanctuary state policies.

“To the extent it looks like we’re focusing on California, that is really a product of the extreme nature of the laws California has been passing in recent days,” a senior Department of Justice official told BuzzfeedNews. “They are passing laws that no other state is passing or has thought to pass, and that’s because the laws are unconstitutional.”

But as the largely liberal California battles the Republican-led federal government, many of the same conservative cities involved in medical cannabis-related resistance are flexing back yet again.

Last month, cities like Los Alamitos and larger counties like Orange and San Diego began to come out against California’s sanctuary policy, echoing Garden Grove’s position: their obligation to the federal government supersedes their obligation to the state. This time, instead of sidestepping cannabis laws, they’re arguing cities should be able to cooperate fully with federal immigration services and turn over undocumented immigrants to ICE for deportation, even as the state declares local enforcement agencies should protect California residents. Los Alamitos was the first to finalize a vote to exempt themselves from SB-54 on Tuesday, but the mayor of Huntington Beach told CityLab he was examining the option as well. Nearly a dozen other cities and counties have signed onto the Justice Department’s lawsuit. While Trump praises their defiance, the ACLU has mounted a lawsuit against Los Alamitos’ exemption ruling, and the city has turned to crowdfunding to help pay for legal fees.

To defend their stance, cities are using some of the same legal arguments deployed in the late 1990s and early 2000s—but there are also signs, said legal experts, that they’ve been learning from courtroom setbacks over cannabis.

Between “when Prop 215 took effect through November 2016 [when adult use and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana was legalized statewide], there emerged a whole swath of cities and counties that wouldn’t allow dispensaries or delivery services to be in their city or county,” said David Goldman, president of a Democratic party-affiliated cannabis organization in San Francisco, the Brownie Mary Club. There were also areas where officers refused to issue medical cannabis licenses to accredited vendors, or simply continued to confiscate drugs and arrest people for possession—even people like Kha, who had licenses or prescriptions.

Part of Prop 215’s weakness (and part of the reason it was so easy for counties to dodge it) was that it didn’t mandate that people actively have access to cannabis, only that they were given limited immunity from prosecution if found in possession. “[Counties] would use zoning restrictions to claim that you couldn’t do it [within certain areas],” said Goldman. “Local zoning ordinances were employed by cities and counties to try and stifle people’s rights.”

Most of this enforcement was de facto, dictated by individual cities’ enforcement whims. These inconsistent laws were able to flourish because at the time, “the federal government was treading very carefully around cannabis legislation,” said Rick Su, a law professor from the University of Buffalo who specializes in immigration and local legal issues. “There wasn’t any explicit litigation about whether or not medical cannabis was legal or whether it was preempted by federal law.”

But cities wanted to clarify that stance, so legal battles ensued. Dale Gieringer, the head of California NORML, a state-wide marijuana reform organization, points to a 2006 case between a local chapter, San Diego NORML, and the County of San Diego as precedent-setting. When NORML threatened to sue the county for “failing to comply with obligations imposed on the county by California’s medical marijuana laws,” the county mounted a defense, arguing that California’s medical marijuana laws were preempted under the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution.

In response to the threat, San Bernardino and San Diego counties filed their own lawsuit, again pointing to the Supremacy Clause. The counties were especially peeved about a 2004 law asking them to give official ID cards to medical cannabis patients, on the grounds that the act further institutionalized an already unconstitutional demand. “That was rejected flat out in the court,” said Gieringer. “For the simple reason that Prop 215 just changed state law, and didn’t change the federal law at all.” In fact, it was rejected flat out in three courts: the state appellate judge ruled federal law did not preempt state law in 2006, so San Bernardino and San Diego appealed to the state’s 4th District Court of Appeals in 2008, where they were denied again. Finally, in 2009, San Diego appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—which refused to hear it at all.

Kha’s case—the one in the car—was most damning for those arguing against the right-to-cannabis laws. Garden Grove v. Orange County, as it came to be known, made it all the way to California’s Superior Court. There, the judge ruled that the city did not have a responsibility to federal law, and shouldn’t have confiscated Kha’s supply. Kha never got his cannabis back (the plant had soured during the long years of litigation), but he was compensated for his loss.

While city vs. anti-sanctuary state litigation is still in its infancy, the vocabulary has echoes of these same cases: Supremacy clauses have been cited; local control has been highlighted. But there’s one major legal difference, says Su. Both argue that the state law is unconstitutional, but while medical cannabis opponents tried to overturn the law for everyone, the anti-sanctuary cities today are also fighting for the right to individually exempt themselves. If cities really believed such a law would be ruled unconstitutional in a higher court anyway, why opt out?

Maybe, Su says, they’ve just learned from the anti-cannabis cities’ mistakes.

After the Supreme Court refused to hear San Diego’s case, the counties and cities that had resisted issuing medical ID cards had to start. But not much else really changed. “Ultimately what ended up happening was a sort of compromise,” said Su. Even after their unconstitutionality argument was invalidated, cities continued to use land control, land use, and home rule powers to enforce their own makeshift local laws.

State medical cannabis approvals still held—cities couldn’t impose fines or arrest those with a medical cannabis license. But what cities could (and did) do was make cannabis much harder to access. While these cities originally wanted Prop 215 abolished, what they eventually got was exactly what some California cities of today are arguing for: exemption.

As of January 1, both medical and recreational cannabis is legal state-wide, after California passed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, with approximately 57 percent of the vote in 2016. But enforcement (and the specifics of what’s legal where) still vary widely across the state.

Cities can decide whether to allow residents to grow cannabis in their backyards or not, and whether it can be sold in retail stores, only medical shops, or at all. Irvine’s rules are strict; Los Angeles’, San Jose’s, and Oakland’s less so. An analysis from The Mercury News found that only one in seven California cities allows recreational cannabis stores; and only one in three allows any cannabis business within its borders. In two small Northern California towns, Gridley and Montague, individuals aren’t able to grow any cannabis plants (indoors or outdoors), despite Prop 64’s clear allowance of six plants per adult. And still today, more than 20 years after medical cannabis was legalized, “fewer than one in five California cities allow medical cannabis dispensaries,” according to the Mercury News’ counts.

Simultaneously, some cities’ policies are even more progressive than the state’s: San Francisco is acting locally to erase decades-old damage caused by harsh cannabis-related convictions, by reversing or reducing charges levied by the city dating back all the way to 1975. Oakland, Los Angeles, and Sacramento are implementing different kinds of cannabis equity programs that, among other things, help low-income residents and those with past criminal records to open up their own cannabis dispensaries.

This historical—and continuing—battle over how exactly to regulate cannabis serves as a reminder that California is hardly a blue monolith. There are plenty of cities that buck the political trend, and as people sort themselves into geographic enclaves based on partisan interests nationwide, state versus local interest issues will only get more contentious, says Su.

“When it comes to the deployment of local resources, that’s a fundamental local issue,” said Su. It’s that fundamental localism that can be used to strengthen both the cases of anti-sanctuary cities in California, and blue cities that hope to become sanctuaries in other redder states. Cooperating with ICE (or refusing to) involves the spending or saving of local tax dollars and the deployment or restriction of local police resources. If a city official or a local police department wants to call ICE every time they pull over an immigrant—whether or not they’ve committed a crime, and whether or not their home state wants them to—who’s to stop them? Similarly, if a sheriff chooses not to alert ICE when an undocumented immigrant leaves jail, who will know to punish them? (Of course, as the ACLU’s suit against Los Alamitos and the DOJ’s lawsuit against California demonstrates, punishments are sometimes levied.)

But these questions also get at the bigger problem surrounding federal enforcement policies versus state ones—and the limits of both federal and state control on their local constituents. “Despite the bluster that Trump and Sessions had about sanctuary cities right after the election, I think they’re slowly coming to the realization that people sort of know already,” said Su. “The federal government’s ability to actually mandate one way or the other what local governments can do is extremely limited.”

Legally, the state’s chokehold is firmer. But as the patchwork approach to California’s cannabis laws displays, it’s possible for cities to wriggle out.

Does a Higher Building Elevation Lead to More Risk-Taking?

If you’re in a penthouse, stay away from the ponies: Researchers have found that people are more likely to take financial risks at higher elevations inside a building.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers looked at data from more than 3,000 hedge funds all over the world and found a “weak but significant” correlation between the volatility of each fund and the elevation of the building floor (ranging from the first to the 96th) where the firm was located.

The finding seems to reflect a fact of commercial real estate: The higher the office, the more expensive it is to rent or own, so a company sitting pretty at the top may have more money to wager. But the study was designed to test the effect of elevation on individuals, not just corporate entities.

In one experiment, participants made bets inside the glass elevator of a tall building. In some cases the elevator was ascending, and in others it was descending. As the elevator ascended, those who traveled up to the 72nd floor were more likely to choose a riskier bet. The descending group, on the other hand, opted for a more conservative choice.

In another experiment, researchers asked some participants on the ground floor and others on the third floor of a building to make 10 decisions, each of which had different risk and payoff options. Those on the third floor chose riskier options more frequently than people on the ground floor.

Sina Esteky, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of marketing at Miami University in Ohio, noted that there’s an architectural association between elevation and power stretching back through history. “Powerful buildings are put on top of a hill, [and] a lot of religions discuss divinity, or people of high power, being in high physical positions. It seems to be a deeply rooted association, [and] it seemed like the reason elevation can lead to people taking more risks is they usually feel more powerful.”

One person who’s well aware of the connection between building height and power is penthouse owner Donald Trump. As a developer, Trump routinely inflated the number of floors in his buildings, because, he said, people “like to have apartments that have height, the psychology of it.”

In their paper, the authors note that although past research has looked at how “atmospheric factors” like lighting and sound can affect consumer decisions, few studies have delved into the effects of spatial positioning. This, they write, is surprising, because “with rapid urbanization, particularly vertical expansion in high-density urban environments, consumers are making a growing number of decisions in multi-story buildings.”

Meanwhile, there has never been more opportunity to work high above the ground. The number of super-tall skyscrapers around the world keeps rising, especially in financial centers like New York City and Hong Kong, and 2017 set a record for the number of new skyscrapers built in a single year. That could mean more people working on the 65th or 82nd floor who are tempted to wager their kid’s college fund on cryptocurrency.

Esteky, who has dual Ph.D.s in business administration and architecture, doesn’t want to do away with elevated towers: “I would not encourage architects or urban designers not to design skyscrapers or high-rises—I think they’re necessary with the amount of density we have in cities,” he said. “But designers and consumers need to be mindful of these subtle effects that aren’t as subtle as we think.” He recommends that designers and developers think carefully about how to deal with urban elevation. For instance, a restaurant might work better than a hedge fund on the top floor of a tower.

“If you’re talking about high-stakes risk-taking—financial, medical, legal—I would encourage people not to put their offices on high levels of a building,” Esteky said. “Or, if they are [near the top]: have a thick curtain.”

Lyft Delivers Carbon-Neutral Rides

Over the years, John Zimmer, the co-founder and president of Lyft, has often pointed to a class he took as an undergraduate as the source of his ideas about environmental sustainability—and by extension, Lyft’s goals to create greener transportation options.

The class at Cornell University was called “Green Cities.” The professor, Robert Young, opened the first lecture by describing how roads and transit systems built decades ago weren’t designed to sustain the rapid growth of urban populations today, Zimmer recalled. “If we don’t fix the infrastructure problem, we’re going to have a major economic and environmental problem,” Zimmer told a roundtable of reporters in Washington, D.C., in late March.

Founded in 2012, Lyft is now an $11 billion ride-hailing company, second in the industry to Uber alone. Its concept of ride-hailing has long been founded on reducing the need for personal car ownership. But today, the company made perhaps its most meaningful move yet towards reducing carbon emissions: Lyft is promising to offset the carbon emissions of every ride around the world, making all rides “carbon neutral.” From now on, Zimmer and his co-founder Logan Green wrote in a Medium post, “your decision to ride with Lyft will support the fight against climate change.”

According to the post, Lyft’s total annual investment will amount to over a million metric tons of carbon, “equivalent to planting tens of millions of trees or taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road,” which will make Lyft one of the largest voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets in the world. Scott Coriell, a Lyft communications officer, said the company does not have a specific estimate for the cost of the investment, but that it will be in the millions of dollars. According to a 2015 report by the NGO Ecosystem Marketplace, General Motors, Barclays bank, and PG&E were the top three voluntary buyers of offsets between 2012 and 2013, respectively scooping up 4.6 million, 2.1 million, and 1.4 million carbon offsets, which are measured in metric tons, during that period.

Carbon offsets have been the subject of some scrutiny and scandal; some companies that take money promising to plant trees and capture emissions have been exposed as worthless or scams. Coriell noted that Lyft will become carbon neutral by investing in offset projects that would not have happened without their backing. These projects will all be U.S.-based and close to Lyft’s largest markets, Corriel said, and will include investments in a manufacturing emissions reductions project in Michigan, oil recycling in Ohio, and a wind energy farm in Oklahoma. These projects are verified under the American Carbon Registry, Climate Action Reserve, or Verified Carbon Standard—all rigorous third-party standard setters of legitimacy.

The announcement is not Lyft’s first gesture towards environmental sustainability. In 2017, it signed “We Are Still In,” joining hundreds of states, cities, and corporations (including Uber) in pledging to uphold the U.S. carbon emissions reduction goals set forth by the Paris climate accord, after President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw the country’s commitment. At the time, Lyft also outlined plans to make the majority of its fleet autonomous and electric by 2025. “Bringing more electric vehicles onto the platform in the future will help us reduce the needs for offsets,” Coriell wrote.

As part of its own efforts to reduce car ownership, Uber has recently pivoted to become a multi-modal mobility provider, building car- and bike-sharing services into its app. It has not announced any plans to offset its carbon emissions. An Uber representative declined to comment on Lyft’s announcement.

Lyft’s commitment to carbon-neutrality is especially meaningful, because one irony of the ride-hailing industry is that, so far, it’s likely creating more vehicle miles traveled, not less. Though some studies have suggested that ride-hailing users are more likely to give up personal car ownership, more and more research shows that the convenience and relatively low cost of on-demand rides are leading travelers to take trips and generate pollution that they wouldn’t have otherwise. (Plus, all of those deadheading drivers.) As these services lure passengers off of public transit systems, it has become hard to argue that there’s anything particularly environmentally friendly about hailing an Uber or Lyft. This announcement changes that.

Lyft is hardly a perfect citizen, planet-saving-wise. Alongside Uber, it lobbies state legislators to preempt local regulations, which may limit the ability of cities from organizing road space in the most environmentally efficient way possible. And from a sustainability perspective, it would probably be better for Lyft to go carbon-neutral and invest in bike-sharing, as Uber is doing. Even renewably powered electric cars have a sizeable carbon footprint. If customers take a Lyft instead of walking or biking because they think these options are all equally green, they’re wrong.

Still, over the past year, Lyft has made genuine efforts to grow into its image as the “woke” alternative to scandal-ridden Uber, to borrow Zimmer’s term. Donations to the ACLU and free rides to anti-gun rallies have bought it credibility among progressives. Going carbon neutral is probably its most significant step in that direction: It is a lasting delivery of one of the company’s most fundamental promises. That really matters, especially as car manufacturers dial back their Obama-era eco-friendly branding efforts and push to weaken environmental regulations. Lyft seems to have real faith in the notion that there’s a market value in socially conscious transportation—that riders will choose Lyft over other apps, or their own vehicles, because they know it’s a better choice.

“We’re aggressively pursuing a set of values because one, we think it’s the right thing to do and two, it’s good for business,” Zimmer said last month. “That’s what we’re out to prove.”

The Weirdest Ways That U.S. Cities Are Celebrating Earth Day

When Earth Day began in 1970, the dire state of cities had a lot to do with it. Urban industrialism had literally become lethal: During a particularly warm Thanksgiving weekend in 1966, the smog in New York City killed nearly 200 people. As the environmental historian Adam Rome told CityLab’s Laura Bliss in 2015, back in the ‘60s, “[c]ities epitomized everything that was wrong with the planet.”

A lot has changed in the intervening decades. The Environmental Protection Agency was formed after the first Earth Day, and the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species acts followed. Cities have cleaned up their air and water, and many have stepped up as forces for environmental progress. San Francisco is now striving for zero waste by 2020, and Portland, Oregon, is working toward cutting the city’s carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030.

Earth Day at the Capitol, 1990 (Greg Gibson/AP)

According to Kathleen Rodgers, the president of Earth Day Network, thousands of events will happen around the world this weekend in honor of Earth Day, which is officially on Sunday. They are intended to draw public attention to issues that environmentalists wrestle with year-round: climate change, habitat loss, and plastic pollution, to name a few.

But for many city dwellers, the goal is a little simpler: to engage with their communities in an Earth-friendly way and have a good time. Here are a few of the more unusual ways that American cities will be advocating for a healthy planet this weekend.

Drinking Thomas Dolby’s Beer in Baltimore

If you live in Baltimore, you may have spotted Thomas Dolby driving his motorboat around the city’s harbor. “I don’t have a car, but I have a little motorboat, and I use that to get around,” Dolby told CityLab. “You’ll often see me out there on my way to Safeway to get groceries, or on my way to Fells Point to get breakfast.”

Those who don’t know Dolby from his jaunts around the Baltimore Harbor may remember the British musician’s 1982 hit, “She Blinded Me With Science.” Now you have another reason to listen to it: Baltimore’s Peabody Heights Brewery has partnered with Dolby to release a new wit—that’s a Belgian wheat ale, in brewery-speak—called “She Blinded Me Wit Science.” Fittingly, the label will feature an image of Professor Trash Wheel, the newest googly-eyed trash-collecting device on the Inner Harbor.

Proceeds from the beer will benefit the Healthy Harbor Initiative, whose goal is to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. The beer will be released in Baltimore and around the country on Saturday, just in time for Earth Day.  

“I think people should get enjoyment out of their harbor,” said Dolby, who is currently a professor of the arts at Johns Hopkins University. “The harbor is already a great center of gravity for Baltimore events … but it would certainly be nice if there were a beach or two.”

Recycling Oyster Shells in Richmond

On Saturday, volunteers at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center, just outside of Richmond, will help the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) stuff mesh bags with oyster shells, which the organization collects from restaurants around the state. That’s the extent of what the volunteers will be doing this Saturday, but it’s not the end of the process. The bags—which program director Todd Janeski described as “10-by-24-inch sausages of shell”—will then be submerged into tanks, where staff members will introduce oyster larvae. The larvae will attach themselves to the shells, then grow into spat and eventually full-sized oysters, with shells of their own.  

Once the larvae have attached themselves to the recycled shells, VOSRP will pour the bags back into the Chesapeake Bay, where they will become part of an oyster reef the organization has been building since 2013. Because an oyster shell has two valves, and 10 to 15 larvae typically attach themselves to each valve, “that means we return 20 to 30 oysters to the Bay for every oyster that we get,” Janeski said.

This is the first time that VOSRP has invited the public to participate in shell recycling. But its work, and that of similar organizations, is vital to the health of the bay: In the early 1900s, 17 million bushels of oysters were being harvested from the Chesapeake Bay annually. By 2001 it was just 23,000 bushels, the lowest harvest on record. Building oyster reefs helps restore the bay’s ecosystem, which in turn helps waterfront communities along the bay to thrive.

“Maintaining a viable working waterfront is really important within coastal communities,” said Janeski. “So in a small way, we’re helping contribute to that.”

Daring to Ride Bare in San Francisco

Over the years, there have been plenty of reasons to get naked in public in San Francisco, and since 2010, Earth Day has been one of them. This Saturday is the eighth annual San Francisco edition of the World Naked Bike Ride, a clothing-optional bike party that takes place all over the world. The ride will begin in the city’s Embarcadero district, pass an Earth Day Festival in the Civic Center, and end in the Castro neighborhood. (This will not even be the first naked bike ride in San Francisco this year: SF WNBR has already hosted two clothing-optional bike parties in 2018.)

Whereas many Earth Day events are broad in scope, this one has a specific aim. “This event was born out of the anger many of us were feeling at the [BP Oil Spill in 2010], and the resulting oil spill that has continually devastated the Gulf,” Oswald Montecristo, one of the organizers, wrote in an email. “Our WNBR for Earth Day is meant to be a visual and audible reminder of this.”

Participants are encouraged to decorate their bodies with black body paint, or trash bags, to mimic spilled oil. If black paint isn’t your style, the organizers suggest wearing green to promote Earth Day.

Besides these events, there will be plenty of other untraditional Earth Day celebrations happening around the country. In Milwaukee on Saturday night, REmodel Resale Fashion Boutique will host an Earth Day Fashion Show to promote recycling and refurbishing clothing. In Dallas, thousands of Tesla owners will gather on Saturday at the city’s EarthX conference to admire each other’s cars and endorse the benefits of electric vehicles. In Monterey, California, a group of divers plans to remove a dumpster’s worth of garbage from the sea. And on Sunday in Corpus Christi, Texas, there’s going to be a Plogging Party, where runners will pick up garbage while jogging through town.

For Kathleen Rodgers, it isn’t a day to celebrate, exactly. “We don’t use the word ‘celebration’ inside Earth Day, though we recognize that people use Earth Day to connect with each other or do things that are cool or funny,” she said. “For the most part, our work is entirely focused on getting communities to make commitments around what they’ll do for the next 365 days.”

So remember, whether you strip down and get on your bike, watch a fashion show, or attend a concert: Earth Day is fun, but it’s also one reason why American rivers no longer catch on fire.

Does Homeownership Really ‘Drive’ the Black-White Wealth Gap?

The wealth gap between blacks and whites would take 225 years to disappear, according to one recent, rather optimistic, estimate. As to how this could happen, theories abound.

Squeezing shut the homeownership gap is a popular solution, and understandably so. A century of racist housing policy—redlining, mortgage loan discrimination, preferential housing subsidies—has created major barriers to homeownership for black Americans. Simultaneously, the federal government has long promoted homeownership as one of the primary asset building mechanisms in the U.S. The result: A homeownership gap that largely overlaps with the wealth gap. But will eliminating the former also do away with the latter?

According to a new paper from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University: Not really.

In this report, authors William Darity Jr., Darrick Hamilton, Mark Paul, Alan Aja, Anne Price, Antonio Moore, and Caterina Chiopris set out to debunk a number of myths about this racial wealth gap—and its fixes. Improving financial literacy, elevating educational achievement, increasing savings, and encouraging entrepreneurship may be helpful, but ultimately insufficient, they argue; these solutions place the brunt of the responsibility on black Americans, to correct a problem they did not create.

But bridging the homeownership gap is a long-touted piece of the solutions puzzle. In 2017, in an article for The New York Times Magazine, sociologist Matthew Desmond wrote: “Differences in homeownership rates remain the prime driver of the nation’s racial wealth gap.” And research by various public policy organizations and housing experts appears to back this up. Technically, they’re not wrong: Housing market conditions and policies do worsen economic inequality. But what the authors of the Duke University paper take issue with is the implication—or perhaps more accurately, the inference—that the homeownership gap causes the wealth gap. They write:

The word “drive” suggests a causal link between homeownership/home equity and the generation wealth. However, a major flaw in this reasoning is that, by definition, homeownership/home equity is a component of wealth. Hence, the statement that “homeownership drives wealth” is equivalent to saying that “wealth drives wealth.”

In other words, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem in the way we talk about the relationship between homeownership and wealth. And the authors of the Duke University paper are arguing that the wealth disparities came first. They write in the paper:

Without sufficient wealth in the first place, households have limited means to invest in homeownership. Wealth, after all, begets more wealth.

Of course, the decades of discriminatory housing policy have driven a deeper wedge between racial groups, but the seed of the black-white wealth gap was sown back during slavery. For this argument, the researchers have some support. A recent historical analysis found that there’s a significant economic penalty for being black in America, and it has remained constant for over 100 years.

That’s why doing away with the homeownership gap, by itself, will not create wealth parity for blacks and whites (although the authors of the Duke paper agree that it will help). They have numbers to prove it: White households that do not own homes have 31 times more wealth than black counterparts. The net worth of the latter group is just $120, according to the researchers’ calculations of 2014 government data.

Among homeowners, too, racial differences exist. White households who own homes have $140,000 more in net worth than black ones. That’s a much narrower gap, but still pretty significant, the authors write in the paper. They conclude that it’s not just that white households, on average, have greater housing equity, but they appear to have greater equity from all other types of financial assets.

(Duke University)

According to the authors, a true reckoning with the black-white wealth gap in America requires a meaningful consideration of the idea of reparations—compensation for the damages of slavery and everything that came after it. With respect to housing, in particular, it could work something like this:

If the goal truly is to eliminate the racial wealth gap, policymakers should be concerned with providing, at the very least, an initial, significant financial endowment to black young adults to invest in an asset like a new home, as well as an aggressive campaign against housing and lending discrimination, which limits the asset appreciation of the housing stock and financial products available to blacks.

Dutch Cities Don’t Love Weed

If you assume the Netherlands has an anything-goes attitude toward cannabis, think again.

This month, the city of the Hague—home to the parliament and royal family of this famously tolerant country—announced that, while it will still tolerate the possession of small amounts of cannabis, it will ban public consumption in its city center. The move is apparently in response to complaints about noise and smells. While it might seem tame compared to countries that ban smoking outright, it still marks a turnaround for a place that has an international reputation for permissive drug policies.

Indeed, the tide seems to be turning against general tolerance in the Netherlands, with increasing curbs being placed on cannabis trade and public consumption. So why is this tightening up occurring here at a time when other countries are moving toward relaxing their laws?

The truth is that the Netherlands has been trying to curb some aspects of the weed business for a while now. As things stand, cannabis possession is technically illegal, but for personal consumption, that law is ignored. Amsterdam (later followed by Rotterdam) banned coffee shops from setting up within 250 meters (820 feet) of secondary schools as far back as 2011. Meanwhile, the whole country came close to limiting weed sales back in 2012, when the government proposed a “Weed Pass” system that would limit cannabis sales to national residents, replacing a cannabis club membership system that had long been in place in the county’s three southernmost provinces. While a few border towns kept the system, the pilot was largely abandoned due to fears that it increased black-market street trading.

Now the Hague’s move is the most comprehensive ban the country has seen yet. What it implies is less a drug crackdown and more of a general shift away from tolerance of cannabis use in public. The ban is being introduced partly because people simply don’t like smelling weed when they’re, say, buying a ticket at the central station. This needn’t come as a surprise. The Netherlands—or at least Amsterdam—may have earned a stereotype among some Americans as a sort of daily re-enactment of the Woodstock Festival with added windmills. The country can nonetheless strike visitors as a rather buttoned-up place, one that places high value on social and environmental orderliness.

Consumption isn’t necessarily the target here—the Netherlands has long had comparatively low levels of cannabis use compared to other European countries, anyway. It’s more about combatting a sense of public untidiness and tacit official approval for weed use. Banning coffee shops around schools, for example, won’t necessarily deter young people from getting their hands on cannabis. What it does do is lessen their exposure to it, as does banning its use from central streets. Frustration at publicly active stoners is also partly influenced by the country’s ongoing anti-tourist backlash, which has seen clampdowns on anything from beer bikes to Airbnb. Coffee shops are especially popular with travelers who face tighter controls at home, though weed tourists are more likely to choose Amsterdam than an attractive but terminally unhip city like the Hague.

Laws that shield people from cannabis use without actually blocking its supply can hardly be said to infringe on people’s rights—or, to be fair, even their convenience. There are still some question marks over the ban, though. Can it be meaningfully policed across a large swathe of a major city, especially when officers have more pressing concerns? And are weed smokers genuinely more of a social menace than drunk people, who throng Dutch streets on weekends?

While the ban’s workability is still open to question, the broader movement could arguably be interpreted as a positive step toward making tolerance of cannabis use more functional. Haguers who hope their central streets will smell sweeter when outdoor cannabis smoking is banned may be in for a disappointment, though.

Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Transforming Organizations and Beyond

We recently released a report titled “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. In this post, we share the next three themes that emerged from our research. To read the previous post, click here.


5. “Embedding” a racial equity and inclusion lens has to be an overarching framework in every aspect of our work.

To many people, advancing racial equity and inclusion can seem like a daunting task. They do not know where to start or what it means to “apply a racial equity and inclusion lens” to social change work. Yet, there is a definition of what this means that has been commonly embraced in the field, and indeed is reflected in our own definition of our racial equity and inclusion work. That definition asserts that organizations must incorporate racial equity and inclusion at every stage of the work and at all levels: personal, team, and institutional. Tactically, this can be as simple as:
Pausing to reflect on the racial equity and inclusion implications as we make decisions, and,
Engaging in candid and authentic conversations about race so we can surface blind spots and hold each other accountable to our values and norms.

Our Recommendations:

  • Introduce and hold project teams accountable to using and being able to share how they used a racial equity impact analysis tool for decision-making that asks the following questions:
    • Are all racial/ethnic groups who are affected by this policy/practice/decision at the table?
    • How will the proposed policy/practice/decision affect each group?
    • Does the policy/practice/decision worsen or ignore existing disparities?
    • Based on the above responses, what revisions are needed in the policy/practice/decision under discussion?
  • Design and implement an audit tool that takes stock of all Living Cities work through an REI lens so that staff can practice applying this lens in an applied way.
  • Develop a set of norms and agreements for staff to engage in candid and authentic conversations about race without losing a sense of psychological safety.

Tools and Resources:

6. We need to treat racial equity as a real competency and skill.

From across all of our activities, it is clear that achieving racial equity and inclusion requires a set of informed policies and practices intentionally designed to promote opportunity equitably and to rectify disparities. The implementation of these practices and policies and the ability to identify instances of interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism requires skills and competencies including but not limited to the following:

  • Comfort and fluency around speaking about what REI means at Living Cities and in the world, including ability to identify, discuss, and confront interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism.
  • Understanding the role that racial equity plays within your projects and Living Cities’ broader portfolio.
  • Ability to interrogate your own personal biases and worldview, and to modify your own behavior on a daily basis based on that interrogation.
  • Deep understanding of the history of racial inequity in America, including around the idea of race as a social construct and the ways that, throughout our history, systems were designed that isolate and separate us, and that empower a select few—based on the invention of race—with the privilege of innovation, creativity, and power..
  • Comfort with making oneself vulnerable at work internally and externally with partners based on the understanding that racial equity work is personal and that we are all learners.
  • Understanding of how to apply a racial equity and inclusion impact assessment tool in decision-making.
  • Ability to effectively facilitate difficult conversations about race toward achieving impact.
  • Ability to set racial equity outcomes, goals, and performance measures.
  • Engagement in community organizing and community-led efforts.
  • Ability to write with nuance, clarity, and humility about racial justice topics.
  • Ability to critically examine social issues and messages for racial biases and inequities and their impact on oneself and others’ thinking, emotions, and behaviors.
  • Understanding relevant amendments, laws, regulations, and policies (e.g. 14th amendment, Federal Indian Policy, immigration policies, criminal justice and policing policies)

Our Recommendations:

  • Adopt racial equity and inclusion as a core competency for employment.
  • Evaluate candidates for employment in part based on their racial equity and inclusion competency.
    Create a competency framework that includes prioritized competencies and skills (including from the list above and from the resources in this report) so that all staff have clarity around the organizational definition of racial equity and inclusion, and so that they can measure their own progress and work with their people managers towards improving their skills and competencies.
  • Provide multiple opportunities/offerings for Living Cities staff to build racial equity and inclusion skills and competencies. These might include individual coaching and training, all-staff conversations and training, conversations and trainings in conjunction with community, and time for self-reflection. All staff should, at a minimum, attend a 101-level training about the history of racism in America by the end of 2017.
  • Make articulating a racial equity and inclusion objective mandatory for all Living Cities staff.
  • Ensure that organizational leadership is working towards high levels of competency in this area, with some members of the leadership team moving towards a “mastery” level as defined by the competency framework.
  • Set up accountability mechanisms and systems of rewards so that all staff, regardless of race, are held accountable for racial equity and inclusion competence, and so that those who are performing well in this area are rewarded for that work.
  • Assign people to work on projects in roles that reflect their REI competence and skills, acknowledging that some teams require higher levels of competence and skill in this area, just as, for example, people with investment backgrounds are placed on teams with emphasis on investing capital.
  • Create a train-the-trainer model so that initial investment in outside training/facilitation/coaching can be brought in-house over time.

Tools and Resources:

7. We all must be able to effectively communicate about REI.

How we talk about race matters. Historically, racial inequities were intentionally created. We must now be even more intentional as we dismantle racial inequity, using a common shared understanding of institutional and structural racism. Yet, many people find that communicating about race and structural racial inequities is a challenge. From our research, we see that it doesn’t have to be. There are many best practices grounded in decades of research and practice. Indeed, through Living Cities work on Racial Equity Here, we have curated a lot of that research and some examples into a racial equity communications guide for public sector practitioners. Many of the strategies and concepts are adaptable and adoptable for other sectors.

Our Recommendations:

  • Consider the ‘affirm, counter, transform’ framework for internal and external conversations about race. (See the Racial Equity Here communications guide.)
  • Work to be explicit about race in a culture of hiding racial inequities behind other words..
    Leverage data whenever possible in our communications (internal and external) about race, but not at the expense of stories. In the end, it is people’s real lives that we hope will change for the better as we undo systems that created our historical and current inequities — stories tell us about the tangible impacts of these inequities and possible paths toward a more equitable future.
  • Adopt a practice of communicating about race that stresses values (“all men are created equal”), realities (“all men are created equal” as expressed by Jefferson referred only to white male property owners), and aspirations (we strive to make “all men are created equal” not just a value but a truth that we are willing to work hard to live in how we live, work, and engage).
  • Ensure that everyone at Living Cities understands and can define key terms related to racial equity (see glossary in Racial Equity Here communications guide).

Tools and Resources:

[[big-button “Read the Full Racial Equity & Inclusion Report” “https://www.livingcities.org/resources/342-report-what-does-it-take-to-embed-a-racial-equity-inclusion-lens”]]


All artwork from this series comes from CultureStrike’s”Until We Are All Free“ project.

Of New Power Generation, How Much is on the Roof? — 2017 Update

The U.S. experienced relatively sluggish gains in total new power plant capacity in 2017, when compared to 2016, but it also saw another, more positive outcome: a notable surge in distributed solar. Using the latest available national data on power generation, this most recent look at data on annual and quarterly electricity generation nationwide from the Energy Democracy Initiative at ILSR illustrates how small-scale, distributed solar energy stacks up against its big, fossil fuel and utility-scale renewable energy competitors.… Read More

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In Many State Houses, Big Cable and Electric Companies are Making the Rules (Episode 44)

Experts Stacy Mitchell, Christopher Mitchell, and John Farrell discuss the impact that concentrated economic power has in state legislatures in topics as wide-ranging as high-speed broadband access, electric utilities, and Facebook’s recent Congressional foibles.… Read More

The post In Many State Houses, Big Cable and Electric Companies are Making the Rules (Episode 44) appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.