‘Kelo’ Goes to Hollywood

A Hollywood movie about eminent domain—you have to love it. The drama, heartbreak, and nail-biting suspense of urban planning, up on the big screen.

It helps that the heroine of the new film Little Pink House is out of central casting. Susette Kelo, a single mom and paramedic, was a classic holdout, refusing to go along with the government’s grand plans for redevelopment in the struggling waterfront city of New London, Connecticut. Played by Catherine Keener (in a Hollywood footnote, Brooke Shields was once interested in the role), Kelo fought City Hall and took her case all the way to the Supreme Court.

And, it’s important to point out, lost.

The 5-4 decision in Kelo v. New London in 2005 affirmed states’ ability to use eminent domain for economic development, under the interpretation of one key phrase of the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

But Kelo’s backers ended up winning for losing, as planners across the country got spooked, and some 45 states moved to restrict the use of eminent domain; pro-property rights forces were invigorated for court cases to come, vigilant against other kinds of infringements on private landowners—including regulations characterized as so onerous they might as well be a physical taking. The case attracted strange bedfellows: Jane Jacobs, Ralph Nader, and the NAACP lined up on Kelo’s side, as did Rush Limbaugh and assorted libertarians. It dovetailed with the Tea Party movement, stirring further suspicions about deep-state government treading on basic freedoms.

The story itself is indeed tragic. Post-industrial New London, like New Haven, Bridgeport, and Hartford, has long sought regeneration. The city boasts many elements that could help it rebound: a stop on the Amtrak Acela Northeast Corridor line, a busy ferry terminal and waterfront, eds and meds, industry, and a sense of place. But, like many smaller legacy cities, it has been challenged.

Just about two decades ago, Connecticut Republican Governor John G. Rowland moved to jump-start the local economy, installing a local college president as head of the New London Economic Development Corporation and luring the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, then on the brink of releasing a profitable little pill called Viagra, to inhabit a massive redevelopment site on the banks of the Thames River. About 90 key acres were at Fort Trumbull, which required the demolition of more than 100 residences and two dozen small businesses. Most sold their property voluntarily; Kelo and 6 others refused, and the fight was on.

Written and directed by Courtney Balaker and based on a 2009 book by Jeff Benedict of the same title, Little Pink House sweeps up all the drama of this David-and-Goliath battle. Kelo was ultimately compensated quite well—$442,000, three times the original appraisal. Today the eponymous home still stands, symbolically re-assembled and moved nearby, and with a plaque out front, perhaps as an inspiration to others. The development deal itself disintegrated, leaving New London pretty much back where it started.

Lessons from this mess fall into two categories: planning and the law. Litigator Dana Berliner from the Institute for Justice (which is depicted in the film, in the person of Kelo’s heroic lawyer), thinks the case shows, among other things, the dangers of top-down, grand-scheme planning. Earlier this month at the annual Lincoln Institute journalists’ forum that I help organize, she appeared to talk about the case with Harvard professor Jerold Kayden, an expert on property rights jurisprudence. As today’s developers and planners know well, community engagement is paramount.

There was virtually no flexibility, needlessly, in New London; the redevelopment could have been reconfigured to avoid destroying houses, but the project team never really entertained that idea, just as Robert Moses refused to move the Cross-Bronx Expressway alignment by a few blocks to spare some destruction.

Eminent domain wasn’t really the entire villain in this story; there are plenty of examples of the justified and responsible use of the tool. Today it is considered more of a last resort, and it’s bad form to just throw around the term “blight” to justify massive disruption. Now the emphasis is on the rational assembly of disparate parcels, particularly for infill projects that otherwise wouldn’t be coherent. Good planning, design, and placemaking—and understanding the community and the needs of stakeholders—have never been more important. The big silver-bullet approach often isn’t as productive as more targeted, incremental efforts that build on the good urbanism of small cities like New London.

In terms of land and the law, Kelo wasn’t a game-changer in the long march of court cases that have defined the balance between government actions and private property rights—Pennsylvania Coal v. Mahon, Penn Central v. New York, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission, Dolan v. City of Tigard, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, and more recently Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District. But the national publicity that this case kicked up still hangs heavily in the air.

There will surely be another test of whether government goes “too far,” the standard established by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes back in 1922 in the Pennsylvania Coal case. Notably, the newest Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, opposes the Kelo decision and railed against it when it was announced. As city leaders and planners anticipate that next showdown, they may find it hard to get New London out of their heads, just like when John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses” comes on the radio.

Gird Yourself for the Latest Infuriating Nordic Life Hack

It seems like a lot of people can’t get enough of being told how to live their lives by Scandinavians. That’s what you might assume by the truckload of English-language books, articles, and TED talks emerging in recent years, all urging readers to adopt lifestyle philosophies that hail from various Nordic cultures.

First came the craze for Danish hygge (pronounced HOO-guh) a striving for cozy, primarily domestic wellness that some authors claimed lay behind Danes’ apparent satisfaction with their lives. Then we discovered Swedish lagom (LAW-gm), a term broadly meaning “just enough,” whose use as a moderating folk principle, boosters suggested, has helped Swedes achieve their unusually high levels of happiness.

Now, as Sweden’s neighbor Finland tops this year’s Northern European happiness league, Finnish writers and pundits are getting in on the act, tossing their own mythologized national mental attitude—called sisuinto the crowded Nordic life-hack market.

Sisu’s tenets seem positively raw-knuckled compared to the plush domesticity of hygge and the moderate self-care involved in lagom. Sisu, it seems, is an internalized sense of stamina and staying power that helps people stay active and engaged, a kind of grit that allows people to accept life’s downs without being bowed by them. Activities imbued with sisu cited in the latest media trawl include invigorating yourself by jumping into icy lakes and getting into practical decision-making quickly by avoiding small talk. If that all sounds too unpleasant or culturally specific, don’t worry. For those in search of sisu-lite, there’s also a range of skin care products called Sisu containing Finnish-sounding ingredients like pine bark, so you can simply spritz yourself with a sense of inner resilience.

What’s wrong with this, you might ask? As a set of precepts, nothing really. Adopting a little fortitude and stoicism could surely be of great help in a frequently frigid country like Finland, and many sisu tips sound like generally welcome self-care rebranded with a scent of birch sap. On top of all this, sisu is unique among the Nordic philosophies of contentment in that it’s more than a little dark. In providing guidance for happiness, it acknowledges that the world is a fundamentally cruel and harsh place where your best hope remains merely, like Voltaire’s Candide, to work in the garden. As a window into a world view, this isn’t uninteresting. Likewise, across the Baltic, there is nothing wrong with copying Swedes or Danes by not overdoing either your work or spending, or maybe getting a bulk order of candles before daylight saving kicks in.

The problem lies more in the fact that, off their home turf, sisu, hygge, and lagom are being used as a woo-heavy explanation for why Nordic citizens seem happy while downplaying the real-world conditions that make their contentment feasible. By advocating hygge as a source of joy and security in, say, Danish women’s lives, there’s a risk of glossing over the fact that their relative equality was won through hard battles with institutions over many decades. Danish women didn’t get where they are today by making mulled wine and staying in by candlelight.

Likewise, a focus on lagom implies that Sweden’s excellent work-life balance comes from some innate Swedish sense of cultural reasonableness that inevitably produces relative social harmony. The reality is that the nation’s enviable working conditions were forged by Sweden’s unions who—in the teeth of fierce, decidedly immoderate resistance by major employers—managed to broker an unusually sweet, enduring deal between workers and employers in 1938.

There’s something a little queasy about such nationalist mysticism. To locate Finland’s success in sisu is to suggest Finns possess an exotic source of inner strength that—like their twilit winters, their interminable words, and their sturdy furniture—can only remain opaque and ineffable to whingeing, hysterical Americans. Rather than a how-to guide to building Nordic-style consensus, the marketing of sisu becomes a birch twig for Anglophone liberal self-laceration. They’re the icebound equivalent of those hate-yourself books that insist every French woman, by some stroke of Gallic sorcery, is stick-thin despite subsisting entirely on cheese.

In a further irony, the Nordic lifestyle buzzwords are trending just as the social safety net that has made the region one of the world’s least unequal is starting to fray. Sweden may have high living standards and relatively low inequality, but it has witnessed sustained welfare cuts and now a growing wealth gap to match. Inequality is rising in Denmark too, with the average assets of the country’s wealthiest 10 percent going up by close to $60,000 between 2015 and 2017. Meanwhile, Finland has let its interesting micro-experiments with universal basic income lapse.

This doesn’t mean that the Nordic countries’ high wealth levels and low inequality aren’t enviable—they remain at world-beating levels. But it’s still uncomfortable to watch trend-hunters ascribe the Nordic sense of security to individual personality traits just as the real motor of that security is sputtering. Something real and tangible—and hard to emulate—made these societies successful, stable, and content. Something tells me it wasn’t wearing socks at the office.

CityLab Daily: Nashville’s Transit Fight Just Got Weird

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What We’re Following

The good, the bad, and the ugly: Next week, Nashville voters will decide the fate of a $5.4 billion transit overhaul—but in the final days of campaigning, things have gotten ugly. The politics were fraught from the beginning, pitting progressive urbanites against suburban conservatives—and the plan was introduced by a mayor who had to resign. Things only escalated from there, with an op-ed published under a fake name, cries of “dark money” flowing in, and a grim reference to the recent Waffle House shooting. As Steve Haruch writes for CityLab, It seems nothing is off limits in the fight over Nashville’s transit plan.

Give me the car: It’s practically conventional wisdom that people who live in a transit-rich neighborhood spend less on transportation. But a surprising new study calls that assumption into question. The most straightforward takeaway: Just because someone lives near good public transit doesn’t mean they give up their car. CityLab’s Laura Bliss has the details.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Long a Libertarian Dream, the Floating City Faces Rough Seas

The Seasteading Institute wants to construct a network of ocean structures to liberate humanity from state control (and taxes).

Hettie O’Brien

How Unhappiness Helped Elect Trump

A new study suggests that many Americans’ dissatisfaction and lack of optimism had a role in electing President Trump.

Richard Florida

Street Grids May Make Cities Hotter

By comparing buildings to water molecules, researchers found that the form of a city can intensify the urban heat island effect.

Linda Poon

The U.S. Is Finally Getting a System to Warn When an Earthquake Is Coming

But will its alerts come in enough time to make a difference?

Chau Tu

The City With the Most Expensive ACA Insurance in the U.S.

There’s only one individual-market carrier in Charlottesville, Virginia, and its premiums are too high for many residents to afford.

Rachel Bluth


Snapshot

(Cody Ellingham)

What happens when modern architecture ceases to stand for progress—when it ceases, effectively to be modern? That’s the question facing Japan’s government housing complexes, built in the late ‘50s as part of a postwar boom. As society’s needs changed, the communities within these modernist complexes shrank, while the buildings themselves stood still. Cody Ellington’s nighttime photographs of the danchi shows how the fading buildings embody the slow decay of the Japanese dream of modernity.


What We’re Reading

What Amazon’s new headquarters could mean for rents (New York Times)

In Seattle, a group of Millennial techies is using data skills to alter the look, and affordability, of their adopted city (Politico Magazine)

Inside the controversial world of slum tourism (National Geographic)

A treasure trove of New York City park photos from the summer of 1978 (New York Times)

Can you identify a city by its Soviet spy map? (The Guardian)


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.

Nashville’s Transit Fight Just Got Weird

On May 1, Nashville voters are set to decide the fate of a $5.4 billion transit plan known as Let’s Move Nashville. It’s a potentially transformative proposal, one that could reshape Music City for generations. If passed, the plan will create five new light rail lines totaling 26 miles, a 1.8 mile downtown transit tunnel, 19 transit centers around the city, four new bus rapid transit lines, four new crosstown bus routes, and a slew of signal, sidewalk, and bike infrastructure improvements. Thanks to a legal opening created by some creative political work, funding will come from raising four city taxes. The bulk of the revenue will come from an increase in sales tax, which by 2023 will go up a full point to 10.25 percent.

The referendum has ignited a passionate, often downright strange public debate, one that’s in keeping with the plan’s sweeping ambitions and serious price tag. (The plan is also referred to as a $8.9 billion transit plan, since Nashville’s Metro Council voted to include both dollar amounts on the ballot; the larger number includes interest and operating expenses.) There’s only one thing people seem to agree on: This is the biggest decision to come down the pike, so to speak, in Nashville for a long time.

“I can’t think of a single more important moment for the city expressed as an election,” says Nashville Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell, “maybe since the city and county consolidated.” That happened in 1962.

The terms of the debate are generally being framed on starkly ideological and geographical lines, with progressive urbanites squaring off against conservatives in the suburbs. On the pro side, boosters of the plan have posited the plan as the logical next dot on the city’s timeline on forward progress, rhetoric befitting the city’s image as a liberal haven in a deeply conservative state. In an op-ed in The Tennessean, Dave Goetz, a finance commissioner under former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, compared the moral weight of this moment to desegregating the city’s lunch counters and voting down an anti-immigrant English-only ordinance in 2009.

Not surprisingly, opposition to the referendum has hopped on the same metaphor, but in the reverse direction. “It really is a look back,” according to Jeff Eller, senior advisor for the No Tax 4 Tracks PAC, which has been the biggest and most visible opponent of the plan. The group balks at the proposal’s high price and lack of utility for non-city residents, and insists that the additional taxes will place a burden on seniors and small-business owners. “We think you’ve got to start on May 2 having a conversation about things that work now, using new technology and different ideas than the light rail scenario of the past.”

Amid considerable fanfare, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry introduced the plan to the public in October 2017. Barry was then considered a rising Democratic star, and the plan was hailed as a politically audacious bid to secure a lasting legacy. But just four months later she was out of office. The mayor resigned on March 6 after pleading guilty to felony theft, related to $170,000 in overtime paid to her head of security, with whom she had admitted in January to having an extramarital affair. It’s unclear how much the resignation affected the chances of the referendum she championed. But it’s worth noting that among the candidates to formally replace her in the May 24 special election, only Barry’s interim successor, David Briley, supports the plan.

The Barry scandal definitely added a twist to the public debate over the transit referendum, which frankly didn’t require any further drama. Indeed, it only got weirder as May 1 approached.

In recent weeks, referendum-related stories have utterly dominated the local media, especially on the opinion pages of The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily paper, where you can find op-eds describing the transit plan as, variously, “a bold step forward,” the product of “funny math and flawed reasoning“ and “the only option.” Other recent op-eds claim the plan “will improve our health,” “can help economically disadvantaged,” “would create gridlock“ and “will not stop gentrification.” Still others claim the plan “fixes the right problem the wrong way“ and that it “won’t fix traffic congestion, but that’s not the point.”

The Tennessean also unwittingly became part of the story when it published a piece by a local writer named Matt Johnson headlined “Five reasons to oppose Nashville transit plan.” One problem: Matt Johnson does not exist. In a follow-up, Tennessean reporter Adam Tamburin explained that a self-described volunteer advocacy organization—confusingly called Better Transit for Nashville—used “a fake name and a misappropriated photo.”

In the wake of this, David Plazas, The Tennessean’s opinion page editor, published a soul-searching editorial that asked “Why can’t we be more civil on the Nashville transit debate?“ (The paper’s editorial board has since endorsed the plan.)

Alas, things only got uglier. Hours after the Waffle House mass shooting on April 22, in which four people were killed in the Nashville neighborhood of Antioch, Better Transit for Nashville referenced the killings on its Facebook page. “[W]e are sorry to post this, but ‘transit’ will bring more crime like this,” said the post, which was later deleted.

A spokesman for the group, Jim Harwell, told The Tennessean that the page has many admins, and that the post was “made by one volunteer and does not represent what our group stands for.” But the implication that improving mobility would be a conduit for urban mayhem brought swift rebuttals from transit advocates nationwide.

On the other side, a group called Nashville for Transit, which supports the referendum, has also been outspoken about the larger political currents running underneath the proposal. One recent mailer describes the referendum’s opponents as using “Trump-Style Lies” and counting among their ranks “far-right donors and out-of-state special interests—including one bankrolled by the oil billionaire Koch Brothers.”

That’s a shot at No Tax 4 Tracks, the leading opposition organization. The Koch connection centers around Lee Beaman, a car-dealership magnate and anti-transit activist who stepped down as the group’s treasurer in February. Beaman had helped lead opposition to a previous bus rapid transit plan, The Amp, which was killed off in 2015 after an aggressive campaign against it by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch Brothers. As recently as last January, Americans for Prosperity was also leading the charge against the current transit plan.

On April 10, during a public debate at the Nashville Public Library, No Tax 4 Tracks spokesman jeff obafemi carr held up a copy of the group’s financial disclosure and declared there was “no money coming from the boogeyman Koch brothers.” According to that disclosure, $750,000 of the almost $950,000 raised comes from 501(c)(4) nonprofit Nashville Smart, which is not required to list its donors. “Almost 80 percent of the No Tax 4 Tracks money is dark money,” Steve Cavendish writes in the Nashville Scene, “accountable to no one.”

Eller, the No Tax 4 Tracks strategist, maintains that the group has not received any money from the Koch brothers. “We think it’s unfortunate that the pro-transit side wants to demonize people who talk about this plan,” he says.

For its part, Nashville for Transit has raised $2.5 million through the PAC Citizens for Greater Mobility. Much of that has come from large donors like the National Association of Realtors, Community Health Systems, and Bridgestone Americas.

While much of the fight around the plan is polarized along typical left-right lines, there has also been resistance from progressive circles among those who wonder if the plan’s multi-billion-dollar budget couldn’t be better spent addressing economic and housing issues directly. Tamika Douglas, a member of the grassroots organizations Music City Riders United (MCRU) and People’s Alliance for Transit, Housing & Employment (PATHE), recently outlined some of their concerns in an interview with the Scene. ”We want equitable transit that doesn’t displace people, and we want to make sure that we’re also focused on housing,” Douglas says. “If you don’t have a place to stay or a home, who cares about a train versus a bus? We’ve got to get more housing in this city.”

Council member Freddie O’Connell says he struggles with this aspect of the debate, in part because the problems are so complex. But he maintains that transportation improvements would indeed address economic issues. If passed, the transit plan would eliminate fares for Nashville residents living at or below the federal poverty level, and improvements to bus service, including greater frequency on busy routes, would begin almost immediately. What’s more, O’Connell says that by needing to have regular access to a car to get around Nashville, residents are already paying an “invisible surcharge.” He also points to work already in progress on a Transit Oriented District plan that “will be a template for Nashville that will be as generative of affordable housing as any of the other tools in our toolkit right now.”

It remains to be seen whether that argument will carry the day on May 2. Invisible surcharge or not, Nashville in 2018 is still very much a car town. After the transit referendum debate at the downtown public library, co-host Tracy Kornet closed the proceedings by thanking everyone in attendance.

Then, she added, “Drive safely.”

The Floating City, Long a Libertarian Dream, Faces Rough Seas

In 1972, millionaire Michael Oliver founded a sovereign state off the coast of Tonga. He chose a shallow reef buffeted by ocean currents, and contracted a company to build an island dredged from the seabed. Oliver named his small island the Republic of Minerva, declared independence, and minted currency. This riled the King of Tonga, who rallied an army to depose his rival. Over time, the sea gradually reclaimed the sand, and the millionaire’s tiny utopia was no more.

“Plans to settle Minerva reef were crazy,” says Patri Friedman, former Google engineer and pointman for the Seasteading Institute. “But that didn’t mean the ideas themselves were crazy.” The California-based nonprofit has a different vision of waterborne independence: It promises to free humanity from state control via a network of ocean homesteads. As its website states, the Institute’s floating nations will feed the hungry, clean the atmosphere, cure the sick, and enrich the poor.

As a young libertarian, Friedman—the grandson of economist Milton Friedman—recognized his political utopia was unavailable on land, so he began searching for his own Minerva 2.0. In the early 2000s, he joined forces with Wayne Gramlich, a software engineer who proposed using plastic bottles to build floating platforms. Together Friedman and Gramlich self published a book called Seasteading: Homesteading the High Seas that sketched plans for a waterborne homestead in the San Francisco Bay. The book caught the attention of Peter Thiel, co-creator of PayPal and current libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley billionaire. Thiel wrote a check for $500,000, Friedman quit his job at Google, and in 2008, the Seasteading Institute was born.

“This was around the time I went to my first Burning Man,” Friedman tells me over Facetime. Fans of the annual desert festival often display a fondness for the idea of creating a more permanent arcadia: Seasteading Institute director Randolph Hencken and president Joe Quirk are also ex-Burners who hold up the self-created Black Rock City as a model of the longstanding libertarian desire to exit state reach. At a recent talk held at the libertarian Cato Institute, anti-tax lobbyist Grover Norquist and private governance advocate Mark Lutter extolled the festival as “a quintessential example of the libertopian ideal,” where self-policing individuals prep for scarcity, supply their own resources, and shun freeloaders.

But when it comes to making Black Rock City for real, libertarians meet a problem. Land is already claimed, leaving few options for true nation-making. Thiel believes technology holds the answers. Political solutions are primeval; sea and space are his preferred frontiers. “Would you rather work for IBM, and try to change [the system] from the inside, or would you rather go and found Google or PayPal?” says Lutter, the director of the Center for Innovative Governance Research.

In the government business, seasteading sees itself as the disruptive startup that will take on the nation-state’s calcifying IBM mainframe.

But progress has been fitful. Friedman and Gramlich’s 2008 plans for a San Francisco “Baystead” never materialized. Later prototypes followed; in 2010, seasteaders announced plans for “ClubStead,” a 200-person resort floating off the California coast, but exorbitant costs blocked construction. The Institute launched its current Floating Cities Project in 2013. By this time Friedman had stepped down as the institute’s director, passing the baton to his successor, Hencken.

After reckoning that the fierce currents of the stateless open ocean would complicate the engineering, the seasteaders reluctantly turned their attention to calmer territorial waters. French Polynesia’s pirate-free lagoons and strong broadband cable made it an ideal test case. The institute met with Tahitian ministers and in January 2017 signed a memorandum of understanding to build a tax-free floating city in Tahiti’s Atimaono lagoon.

But attempts to launch this structure have lately run into rough seas. A plan to build a platform in a tropical lagoon caught heat from locals, and a campaign stoked by opposition politician Valentina Cross swept away their proposals for an inaugural colony. In February, the Tahitian government stated publicly that an agreement with the Seasteading Institute in 2017 was now outdated and non-binding.

In particular, residents were skeptical of the benefits that a tax-free seastead would bring to Polynesia’s economy, and feared the platform’s polluting effects on the lagoon. “How would a new tax-free zone … have the potential to change the face of our economy?” asks Alexandre Taliercio, a Tahitian radio and TV host who’s helped lead to opposition to the scheme. Despite the Institute’s promises of job creation, Taliercio thinks that many locals lack the requisite engineering skills to help build ocean platforms.

That leaves the Institute, and their movement, once again at sea, shopping for a new host nation willing to take on a partnership. This might be appropriate, since the libertarian notion of competitive government is a key element of the movement’s philosophy. Instead of a traditional state/citizen relationship, seasteaders advance the idea that government is a product, with customers electing their preferred mode from a marketplace of providers. You want a socialist seastead? A libertarian seastead? A Muslim seastead? Name your price. The extension of this logic looks like a cross between Seaworld and anarcho-capitalism, where citizens sign user agreements with government providers, disputes are settled in arbitration courts, and insurance companies replace public law courts.

Titus Gebel, a seasteading advocate and founder of the Free Private Cities movement, believes that these floating nations will be free from land-based conflicts. People can choose to live among those who share their ethnic, religious, and political persuasions. For Gebel, competitive government will “disarm and transform politics into just one product among many,” bracketing differences while ceding democracy to gated communities. Think of your chosen seastead as the ultimate urban filter bubble.

Media coverage of the Seasteading Institute tends to focus on the group’s shimmering architecture and eco-friendly technology—these future structures will be solar- and wind-powered showpieces of advanced zero-emission gadgetry, as well as floating startup incubators for “aquapreneurs” who seek to unlock the profit-making potential of the high seas, free from meddlesome regulations. But it’s also possible that the showy glass biomes and origami atolls seen in their group’s renderings mask ambitions that lie closer to shore: Seasteading may be more about changing onshore policy than building offshore platforms.

That’s the conclusion some scholars of the movement have come to. Philip Steinberg, a geographer at Durham University in the U.K., argues that even Friedman may not see the movement as a truly practical alternative to the nation-state. “[Seasteaders’] purpose may be more to spur thinking about current limits that the state places on freedom so that others will dream up and implement more practical alternatives,” he wrote in a co-authored paper.

Framed this way, the Institute sounds more like an aquatic tax lobby, one who’s true intent is pressuring existing governments to slash taxes in a race to retain the highest bidders. “Life would be a lot easier if the competitive pressure to cut taxes would just boomerang back on to the United States,” says Quinn Slobodian, a visiting fellow at Harvard and professor of history at Wellesley College. “Seasteaders wouldn’t even have to detach themselves from the mainland.”

When I ask Friedman whether Seasteading is more concerned with changing existing government policies or actually building new floating nation-states, he tells me these impulses are “two sides of the same coin.” Disrupting current forms of government will create new rules that existing governments can copy, he says. “And existing governments will have a reason to copy them, otherwise they will worry about people or capital draining out of their country and into other countries.”

Behind this vision of competitive government lies a stark calculation of capital flight. Seasteading will give people the power to “leave governance they don’t like and choose governance they do,” says Seasteading Institute president Joe Quirk via email. Who would choose to pay taxes when they could simply relocate?

Of course, as Seasteaders leave government regulations and taxes onshore, they’ll also jettison the protections associated with the social safety net and labor rights. Redistribution doesn’t feature in this worldview. “Comb the pages of the Seasteaders’ work and you will find numerous references to ‘freedom’; rarely will you see the word ‘equality’” writes Raymond Craib, a professor of history at Cornell University at work on a history of libertarian “escape” projects.

With their plans for a Polynesian colony now stalled, Institute director Randolph Hencken says that 51 other potential host countries are now in conversation. The seasteaders remain optimistic, though their floating city may be no closer to reality. As Joe Quirk advises me in an email: “Get ready for a better blue world.”

Street Grids May Make Cities Hotter

In 1995, an unbearable heatwave in Chicago, with temperatures reaching above 100 degrees, killed an estimated 739 people. The extreme heat was in part a consequence of the urban heat island effect, which makes downtown areas ostensibly warmer than their surrounding suburban and rural areas. The difference is even starker at night: even as the temperature cools, the release of heat absorbed during the day by asphalt and densely packed buildings can make the downtown area some 20 degrees warmer in some cities.

By now, scientists know that the density of buildings, the absorption of light by those buildings, and the relative lack of vegetation in cities are major contributors to the urban heat island effect. It’s why cities like Chicago are hoping to find relief through green roofs and reflective construction materials, or through planting more trees and banning cars. In a more radical move, Los Angeles even began painting their roads white as part of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s effort to bring down the city’s temperature by just under 2 degrees over the next 20 years.

Yet Roland Pellenq, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub, wondered how much the actual layout of a city area contributes to the intensity of the urban heat island effect. To find the answer, Pellenq and his team turned to physics.

In a paper published last month in the journal Physical Review Letters, he and his team concluded that the “texture” of a city makes a big difference. Grids may be making cities much warmer than nearby suburbs and countryside.

It all began while Pellenq was on his coffee break, looking at Boston’s skyline from across the Charles River. To him, the buildings resembled water molecules piled up on a surface. So, he thought, “why don’t we calculate the relative position of [the buildings] and see if there is a pattern of order that emerges?” Pellenq told CityLab. Indeed, the fingerprints of cities like Boston and Los Angeles mirror the disorderly atomic structure of liquids and glass, while the likes of Chicago and New York City, with their streets and avenues perpendicular to one another, exhibit a more orderly configuration found in crystals.

Some cities have a more “liquid-like” layout, while others are more crystalline in structure. (Courtesy of Roland Pellenq)

Pellenq’s team calculated the temperature difference between urban areas and their suburban or rural counterparts for 14 U.S. cities, using years’ worth of data from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. To find the correlation between texture and temperature, they first quantified the “local order” of each city’s urban layout, using Google Maps to analyze how buildings are organized within a three-mile radius of a weather station.

Then, adapting formulas that physicists use to measure atomic interaction in condensed materials, they assigned each city a score between 0 and 1, with 0 indicating a liquid-like layout in which buildings are loosely packed and organized randomly, and 1 signifying a perfectly ordered structure. (Most cities fell between 0.5 and 0.9.)

The researchers concluded that the more tightly packed that cities are, the more intense the urban heat island effect is—no surprise there. “The heat problem is really a short-range interaction between buildings,” said Pellenq. “Basically, one surface of a building is radiating heat to the next [building].” That energy tends to accumulate within so-called heat canyons created between those buildings.

More surprising, though, they found that cities with more rigid grid-like street patterns (that is, a higher local order) tended to display a higher temperature difference between their urban and rural areas. This has to do with air flow, said Pellenq. In disorganized cities, the air tends to flow uniformly with little or no interruption. But the perpendicular streets of Chicago and the like often trap heat by disrupting that airflow.

As existing cities expand and new ones crop up, particularly throughout Asia and Africa, Pellenq said this finding should be incorporated into planning. Designers of urban districts in colder regions may want to consider a grid-like pattern to retain heat, while those in warmer regions might consider introducing some form of disorder into the layout.

Forethought like that can make a big difference over time in terms of financial spending and climate change. Consider that roughly nine out of 10 households in the U.S. have air conditioners, which are turned on even before the peak of summer. And as the world heats up, countries like China and India are increasingly mirroring America’s addiction to artificial cooling. One study estimated that the world is poised to add 700 million AC units by 2030, which translates to massive energy costs and consumption—not to mention a big boost in carbon emissions. But beyond that, Pellenq noted, the design of a city can mean life or death as climate change fuels more deadly heatwaves in the future.

The urban heat island effect is complex, of course, and there’s more research needed to round out Pellenq’s analysis. He hopes to study the air flow in cities and how that factors into his model, and wants to expand his research to beyond that three-mile radius. But as cities are already demonstrating, architecture, materials science, and natural landscaping each has its own role in curbing the urban heating island effect. So everything has to be considered.

“It’s not one [factor] or the other,” Pellenq said. “It’s probably one and the other.”

When Living Near Transit Doesn’t Lower Transportation Costs

In the U.S., whether you own a car is the main determinant of how much you spend to get around—gas alone costs the average American nearly $3,000 annually. So it stands to follow that living in neighborhoods with good public transit access should reduce your transportation expenses. This notion of “location efficiency” is one of the reasons that many housing advocates (including supporters of the now-dead SB 827, the radical transit-oriented housing proposal in California) are so passionate about building affordable units near train and bus stops.

But does moving to a transit-rich neighborhood mean a person’s transportation costs systematically come down? Not according to a new paper that studies a decade’s worth of income dynamics for 11,000 American families, rich and poor. The study, published recently in the journal Housing Policy and Debate, finds almost no relationship between lower transportation spending and neighborhoods with better bus and subway connections when studied through the lens of real-world household spending.

The findings may give pause to those interested in how housing and transportation, the largest household expenses in the U.S., intersect in wallets and bank accounts. Years of research and widely-used data indices from the community development organization Center for Neighborhood Technology and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have implied that the more transit-rich a neighborhood is, the less people spend on transportation, and therefore the more “affordable” that area is. But while these indices are built mostly on models that estimate transportation expenditures for typical households, this paper studied direct measurements of these expenses of real people over time. The results did not match up. (That said, a leader of the prevailing school of location-efficiency said that there is good reason for this, and called into question the premise of the paper. Read on for his rebuttal.)

This figure shows a weak relationship between lower transportation costs and higher transit accessibility. (Smart & Klein, Housing Policy and Debate)

Authors Nicholas Klein, a transportation planning professor at Cornell University, and Michael J. Smart, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers, relied on a source of data that had not previously been used for studying this topic: part of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). This nationally representative household survey began in 1968 and has tracked in detail the basic expenses of the same thousands of American families since. Klein and Smart used a confidential, geocoded version of PSID that reflected the total transportation expenditures (including vehicle purchases, gasoline, repairs, insurance, transit fares, and others) of 11,000 families across income brackets and neighborhoods, between 2003 and 2013. It was only one set of numbers, Klein and Smart acknowledged, but “it punches above its weight by following the same families over time as they move, and with rich detail on actual expenditures,” they said in an email to CityLab.

The authors followed three methods to test the location efficiency hypothesis against the ten years of survey data. First, they took “snapshots” of the PSID families at different moments in time, examining the basic relationship between lower transportation costs and higher transit access (as measured by the number of jobs accessible by public transit within 30 minutes). They found a weak correlation, not the strong diagonal line they expected.

This figure shows weak relationships between lower transportation costs and higher transit accessibility, at different intervals of time after moving. (Smart & Klein, Housing Policy and Debate)

Next, the authors charted how a change in transit accessibility affected a change in a family’s transportation spending, immediately after moving from one neighborhood to another and then two, four, eight, and ten years after moving. Again, they found almost no systematic effect.

“Some people do move and see their costs go down—but there are almost as many people whose expenses go up,” Klein said in an interview.

Finally, they built a model that looked specifically at how transportation expenses changed, in actual dollars, among families who relocated to better or worse transit environments. Again, across income brackets, they saw only a weak relationship between the two. Only by moving from the very extremes of the transit accessibility did families see more significant savings. “By going from the very bottom of the transit access scale to the absolute top, you’d save $58 per month,” Smart said. But such a transition was not the norm.

Likewise, population density, employment density, walkability, and neighborhood compactness did not significantly affect transportation spending, either, the authors found. While some families spent less on getting around when the shape of their neighborhoods changed, almost as many families spent more. Indeed, the transportation expenses of non-movers and movers alike were largely unaffected by transit access. All of this was contrary to the strong relationships between transit access and household expenses that Klein and Smart expected based on the existing literature.

The simplest way to think about these findings is in terms of car ownership, the big-ticket item among household transportation expenses. On paper, it’s easy for planners and policymakers to believe that families who live in neighborhoods where they could give up their cars do, in fact, give them up. But according to this study, transit access turns out to be low on the list of factors that actually push people to give up their cars. Much more important are the number of adults and jobs in their households, how many children they have, their annual income, and the cities they moved to and from.

A screenshot of Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, which shows in light to dark green areas of higher and lower “location efficiency.” (Center for Neighborhood Technology)

“It’s not that transit doesn’t help people,” said Klein. “But lots of people who are making totally rational decisions not to use transit and to have their car are doing it to help their family.”

The implications for housing planners and decision-makers, then, is that policies that assume good transit will lead to lower household spending won’t necessarily work for all families, especially those who aren’t already intent on giving up their cars. That includes “location efficiency mortgages,” or LEM, a transit-oriented housing financing idea that was piloted in the 1990s and early 2000s, and which petered out around the recession.

The paper has inspired conversation among housing and transportation researchers, who called attention to the new study on Twitter last week. Dan Immergluck, a professor at the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University, tweeted that the paper “calls into serious question” the focus among housing advocates on building affordable units only near transit. There may be other good reasons to do so, he added in an email to CityLab, but “locating affordable housing near transit may not lead to as much cost savings as such modeled estimates imply.”

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor of public policy and transportation planning at the University of Southern California, tweeted, “I have always [had] trouble with the basic idea of the LEM.” Just because someone has “access” to an amenity, she continued, doesn’t mean they’ll use it.

The findings of this paper may call to mind a paradigm shift in the realm of affordability research. For more than a decade, affordability indices from CNT and HUD have been widely used by researchers, planners, policymakers, and nonprofits to study and guide real-world development and policy decisions. They also encourage prospective homeowners to use them to evaluate where to live. Both indices factor in transportation in addition to housing costs as measures of a neighborhood’s affordability at the census block level. They rely on the assumption that the built environment is a key determinant of how much a person spends on transportation; this paper suggests that this is not the case.

However, this is only one paper, and no single study is likely to settle any academic debate. More research could be used to validate Klein and Smart’s findings. Furthermore, Scott Bernstein, the president and co-founder of CNT and one of the principal authors behind its widely used Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, took issue with the idea that this paper poses a serious challenge to his own years of research. In fact, he felt that the paper’s premise mischaracterizes the fundamental intentions of his work.

In a detailed statement provided to CityLab, Bernstein said that the CNT index uses a model drawn from peer-reviewed research and that includes many factors that drive household transportation costs. It has been tested against “real” data, including vehicle odometer readings from millions of households. Klein and Smart used overly narrow samples and metrics from which to draw broad conclusions, Bernstein argues. And fundamentally, while Klein and Smart are measuring the expenses of individual families who move, CNT’s index is supposed to measure the potential affordability of a place. “People can, and often do, spend less in areas with high location efficiency,” Bernstein said.

But Klein and Smart said that studying families who change neighborhoods gets to the heart of the affordability question. It is individuals, after all, who bear the costs of transportation, not neighborhoods. If a place is supposed to be more affordable because of its good transit access, people who move to that place should expect to see some savings, they said.

Perhaps the paper’s significance was best summed up by Smart’s mother, who was apparently unfazed by its somewhat surprising conclusion. “She was like, ‘Of course,’” Smart recalled. “’Everyone loves cars. It doesn’t matter where you live.’”

How Unhappiness Helped Elect Trump

Like more than half of American voters, I woke up severely depressed the morning after Election Day 2016. As my wife and I wiped the tears from our eyes, she turned to me and said: “As terrible as we feel, can you imagine what the backlash would have been if the election had gone the other way?” Her comments reflect a basic reality: For large numbers of Americans, happiness and well-being increasingly turn on who is elected.

That intuition is confirmed in newly released polling data from Gallup that focuses on the link between partisan voting and well-being. Gallup’s analysis is part of a study done in partnership with researchers at the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, and originally published in the journal PLOS ONE. The study finds that the places that swung most for Trump were those whose residents had the lowest levels of improvement in their happiness or life satisfaction under the Obama administration, whereas the places that swung most for Hilary Clinton saw among the highest levels of improvement in well-being during that same time.

These findings are based on more than 175,000 interviews (conducted in 2016) with Americans in more than 3,000 counties, representing all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

It is widely believed that Trump tapped into increased feelings of anger and anxiety, particularly among white working-class voters outside of large urban areas. But like the presumption that the results of the 2016 election were about economic hardship, this seems to be myth more than reality.

Counties that experienced the biggest surge in Trump voters were not appreciably more likely to have residents who reported higher levels of anger and worry. In fact, counties that went more for Clinton actually had slightly larger shares of residents who said they experienced high degrees of anger and worry than those that swung the most toward Trump, as the table below shows. That said, the counties that swung the most toward Clinton also had slightly higher levels of happiness and enjoyment than those that swung the most for Trump.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

(Note: As seen in the rows of the table, the researchers grouped U.S. counties into six clusters based on the change in their vote for president from 2012 to 2016. The spectrum ranges from a gain of more than 10 percentage points for Republican voters in 2016 to a Democratic gain of more than 10 points.)

The fact that there is no observable relationship between negative day-to-day emotions and political shifts seems to contradict the notion that high levels of anger, stress, and worry are what led to Trump’s election.

What the research shows instead is that it’s how people think about the bigger picture of their lives, and not just their daily experiences, that drove the big vote swings of 2016. Indeed, the counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Republican presidential candidate between 2012 and 2016 were made up of residents who also reported the lowest levels of both satisfaction with their current lives and optimism about the future.

Furthermore, residents of counties that saw the biggest surge in Republican voting didn’t just report lower levels of satisfaction with their current and future lives; they reported lower levels of improvement on these measures since 2012, even though both have improved among all adults nationwide over the same period. By contrast, counties that saw the largest jump in votes for the Democratic candidate reported above-average levels on both metrics.

The table below shows the share of residents who expressed high levels of satisfaction with their current lives as well as high levels of optimism about the future, across these six clusters of voters. In the counties where the 2016 vote swung Republican by 10 or more percentage points from 2012, only 61 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life, and 58 percent reported high levels of optimism for the future. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the counties where the vote swung Democratic by 10 or more percentage points, 73 percent of residents reported a high level of satisfaction with their current life and 72 percent reported a high level of optimism for the future.

In the table below, the column marked “Current life satisfaction” describes the percentage of people who ranked their current life satisfaction between 7 and 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. The “Future life optimism” column shows the percentage of people who ranked their optimism about the future between 8 and 10.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

The same pattern comes through in the next table, which charts the percentage change in current life satisfaction and in optimism for the future across these six major voting groups.

Data by Gallup. Chart by Madison McVeigh/CityLab

In counties where Trump increased the Republican share of votes by more than 10 percent, current life satisfaction improved by just 1.7 percent, and optimism for the future improved by just 1.6 percent. But in counties where Clinton gained more than 10 percent over Obama, current life satisfaction had improved by 2.7 percent and optimism for the future by 3 percent.

It is not anger, anxiety, or worry that lead to big vote swings, but a lingering feeling of unhappiness and a lack of optimism about the future. This kind of unhappiness with current conditions and unease about what the future holds appears to shape how people vote.

The connection between unhappiness and vote swings is something for politicians, pundits, and all Americans to be aware of, especially in America’s current climate of declining happiness. According to another Gallup poll from earlier this year, America saw the largest year-over-year drop in well-being between 2016 and 2017 in the 10 years that Gallup has tracked this data. If Democrats want to recapture the House of Representatives in 2018 and win back the presidency in 2020, it is this declining happiness that they have to confront.

CityLab Daily: Raising the Rent

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What We’re Following

HUD piles on the bills: A new bill backed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development would raise rents for housing aid recipients, and could let public-housing authorities and landlords set work requirements for their tenants. HUD Secretary Ben Carson says the goal is to relieve lengthy waitlists for housing aid and to incentivize “self-sufficiency,” but the proposal has alarmed housing experts. CityLab’s Kriston Capps explains what this means in his story: Why HUD Wants to Raise the Rent

Andrew Small


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Map of the Day

(Urban Institute)

Economic growth doesn’t necessarily go hand-in-hand with economic and racial inclusion. That’s the finding of a new in-depth Urban Institute analysis of the 274 largest cities in America. The study measures economic growth from 1980 to 2013 alongside measures of economic health and racial disparities to rank inclusive and recovering cities. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra digs into the report’s takeaways from successful cities that improved inclusion as they grew.

The report’s top 10 cities for overall inclusion tended to be mid-sized cities in California—from Fremont to Santa Clara to Carlsbad—with Bellevue, Washington, and Naperville, Illinois, also ranking high. Meanwhile, bigger cities landed in the bottom ranks, with Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, and Miami all performing poorly on overall inclusion.


What We’re Reading

This app declares war on loud restaurants (Vox)

How to not be a bully behind the wheel (Streetsblog)

Redlining has taken a huge toll on property values. But not everywhere. (Slate)

How ICE mines local police databases (In Justice Today)

A portrait of the South, served up one Waffle House order at a time (The New York Times)


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