This Housing Price Spike Is Different

Housing prices are cooking. Across the nation, the price of homes is rising faster than the rate of inflation—in some places by a factor of three. That’s true of high-cost cities such as Seattle and San Francisco and lower-cost cities such as Charlotte and Tampa alike. And the overheated market for homes is costing the middle class the American dream.

Nationwide, the price for homes is approaching the zenith seen in 2006, just before the market fell into a foreclosure crisis and the economy sank into the Great Recession. No major city appears to be spared from these rising temperatures. New highs or near highs in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., are mirrored by similar (relative) highs for Cleveland and Chicago.

But there are key differences between the housing peak in 2006 and the housing peak today. This surge in housing prices is not necessarily evidence for a bubble—much less any indication that a bubble is about to burst. Understanding the difference is critical to knowing how high housing costs may affect the economy going forward.

Late in July, the S&P CoreLogic Case–Shiller U.S. National Home Price NSA Index tracked a 6.4 percent annual gain in home prices for May 2018. This index has recorded year-over-year increases of at least 5 percent every month since August 2016—a sign of the strength of the recovery. Len Kiefer, deputy chief economist for Freddie Mac, shared a visualization for these data; in Seattle, which saw a year-over-year price increase of 13.6 percent for May, home prices are already well above the 2006 high-water mark.

But since most workers aren’t earning 6 percent raises year after year, eventually this party has to come to an end. (Indeed, for four-fifths of privately employed workers, wages are actually falling.) Housing prices will stabilize or soften because they have nowhere else to go. The prevailing trend is unsustainable. “If something can’t go on forever, sooner or later it will end,” says David Blitzer, managing director for S&P Dow Jones Indices. With mortgage rates and prices rising, sales in both new homes and existing homes are starting to slow. “Either buyers have gone for the summer, because it’s too hot to look at housing, or they’re pausing to see what’s going on,” Blitzer says. “If the pause continues, you’ll see sales go down.”

A slowdown could be a good thing for some households that are looking to buy homes—“a small plus for consumer sentiment,” according to Blitzer. A pause might indicate that people feel less rushed to buy, meaning that when they do buy, they feel comfortable about the decision that they’re making. “The flip side of that [is] the sellers won’t be making out like the bandits they thought they would be six months ago,” he says. But there’s no reason to believe that, if and when a downturn arrives, it will spiral into a collapse.

One big difference is in the relative dearth of banditry today. Speculators aren’t driving new home construction during the recovery the way that they did during the boom. Researchers from Chinese University of Hong Kong, Princeton University, and the University of Texas at Austin have shown (in an as-yet-unpublished paper) the economic consequences of betting on the housing market: Cities with a higher share of investment homes saw higher highs (and lower lows).

The harrowing experience of Las Vegas during the foreclosure crisis a decade ago illustrates the role that speculation played. Between 2000 and 2005, the share of non-owner-occupied home purchases in Las Vegas rose from about 18 percent to above 29 percent. Three years later, that level was back down to 18 percent—but the damage was done. Las Vegas witnessed a huge spike in housing values during the boom (more than 120 percent) followed by a nosedive (more than 50 percent).

New York, on the other hand, suffered less during the foreclosure crisis. The researchers show that the share of non-owner-occupied home purchases never edged north of 7 percent in New York. The city’s housing prices appreciated 80 percent during the boom before falling 25 percent over the bust—a lower high and a higher low.

High housing prices today aren’t the result of exuberant buyers and builders feeding off one another. Nobody’s building anything. As the chart below shows, housing starts have picked up since the Great Recession, but new residential construction has yet to meet the level before the boom. Housing starts at this point in the recovery aren’t even what they were during the early 2000s recession. There’s no surge in construction to meet (and fuel) demand from investors. Prices have rebounded over the recovery; construction hasn’t.

Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

With fewer opportunities, American homebuyers face fierce competition—those who haven’t been left behind by the housing market, anyway. At the high end of the spectrum, wealthy buyers from abroad have escalated the chase for homes in affluent neighborhoods with all-cash bids, often above asking price. While foreign purchases represent only a small share of the market overall, they’ve left a mark on cities such as Seattle and D.C.—although they appear to be leveling off now.

A different phenomenon confronts the lower end of the market. All the speculative construction in places that bet big on the boom—followed by a wipeout wave of foreclosures—has led to a supply overhang in places, meaning not enough qualified buyers for homes. Corporate landlords have scooped up some of this inventory, converting formerly owner-occupied houses into single-family rentals. As with foreign purchases, it’s only a tiny share of the overall market, but in certain cities (especially in South and West), the effect is pronounced.

If the housing market were an investment bubble set to pop any day now, we might expect more construction and more buying along with the higher housing prices—think Las Vegas or Phoenix or Tampa during the boom. Instead, more cities share the experience of New York, where even a speculative craze did not drum up that much new construction. There’s interest from investors at both the high and low ends, but there just isn’t the make-a-buck building boom to merit a bubble. This time, soaring prices may reflect something more banal: low inventory and high demand, with frustration all around.

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How a New Park Fits Detroit’s Plan to Bring Its Neighborhoods Back

It’s been a week since Ella Fitzgerald Park opened in Detroit. It’s named after the storied jazz and blues singer who made a career in nearby clubs, but the Fitzgerald neighborhood in which it resides predates her.

As for the park’s design, the jury is still out.

Bernadette King, who’s lived in the Fitzgerald neighborhood since 1993, spent a good chunk of Thursday enjoying the new space, hula hooping in the park with a friend. She dreams  that one day hoolahoopers from across the neighborhood will line the park’s open space at once.

Darnetta Banks, whose family moved into the neighborhood in 1966, has high hopes for the park, too, but worries that there aren’t enough jungle gyms or trash cans, and that the noise disturbs those who live closest to it.

Regardless, the neighbors, city officials, developers and philanthropists who helped make the park happen know that this is just the beginning.

Nearly a third of the lots in the Fitzgerald neighborhood in the northwest section of Detroit sit vacant. Some hold abandoned homes falling into disrepair and others are simply overgrown. Neighbors have informally converted many into community gardens or meeting places over the years. It’s all too common in Detroit, where vacancies found that the project was a year behind schedule and had lost some of its federal funding. Moreover, some residents feel that the communication with the neighbors needs to be stronger, and that the city could do more to help existing homeowners.

For example, while the city offers zero interest loans to existing homeowners to renovate their homes, Banks isn’t sure that’ll always be able to help. “There’s nothing out here grant-wise for existing homeowners,” she said. “That should have been brought to the table in the very beginning.” If the city wants new people to move into the neighborhood, they need to make it as accessible as possible for existing neighbors to update their properties, Banks added.

And the communication between the city and the residents hasn’t always been perfect. According to Bernadette King, a member of the College Corp Block Club, it took a while before the city’s websites were up, and still some people don’t have internet access. But she attributes a lot of the problems to growing pains.

“This is how you learn,” she said. “This is new for residents.”

And she’s excited to see what comes next. “I’m very pleased with the park and I am looking forward to more great things,” she said.

If all goes as planned, the Fitzgerald neighborhood should be transformed in the next two years. By then, all the vacant lots will either be owned by the parks department, new homeowners, or be used by as meeting spaces, meadows, or farms by neighbors. A greenway will cross the neighborhood and a series of community hubs will dot almost every block. Massey’s murals will look over it all from the new park that sits between Prairie and San Juan streets.

For residents who have lived there for years, like Darnetta Banks and Bernadette King, it’s been a long time coming.

“We’ve watched this area go from a beautiful area to just fine,” Banks said. “Now, we’re back on the rise.”

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Inside a Pedestrian-First ‘Superblock’

Excess traffic, unmitigated pollution, a lack of green space: These problems aren’t unique to Barcelona. But the city’s answer is.

Superblocks—40-acre, tic-tac-toe sections of the street grid that the city has transformed into pedestrian-first environments—have shot the Catalonian capital to the cutting edge of urban design since Mayor Ada Colau took office in 2015. Drawing inspiration from the city’s historic plan, Colau centered her transportation policy platform around wide-scale pedestrianization of the city, with the goal of reducing private car and moped use by 21 percent.

A new short documentary from Streetfilms provides an intimate glimpse into the Poblenou superblock, the first of this new wave of street interventions, which opened in 2016. Just a few years ago, multiple lanes pushed vehicles down every block in this once-industrial neighborhood, now home to working-class families and artists. Now a single narrow lane without any grade separations winds cars slowly around the perimeter of the special three-block-by-three-block chunk of streetscape. The rest of the space is cleared for pedestrians, cyclists, and kids to move among bike lanes, open paths, trees, sculptures, street furniture, and playground equipment.

The visual effect of these long, linked corridors of public space with multiple uses is somewhat surreal. Unlike a small “pocket park” or even a pedestrian mall designed for shoppers, in which the surrounding grid still defers to automobile traffic, the logic of the superblock is that, while cars may enter, people come first. Other cities are watching Barcelona with great interest.

That’s the kind of thing you just don’t think about when you are walking around a neighborhood, is that in the middle of these streets, you could be doing the same things you’d be doing in park space,” Mike Lydon, the author of the street design guide Tactical Urbanism, says in the film.

The superblock concept is not entirely new; the first large pedestrianized swath came to the city’s El Born district in 1993. But Colau’s plan is far more comprehensive, with a vision for some 500 superblocks that would cover virtually all of Barcelona. This won’t be easy—controversy has dogged the Poblenou project, with some residents protesting the traffic restrictions, and only a few new superblocks have opened since 2016. Some Barcelonans worry about the gentrifying baggage that “green” redevelopment projects can bring. (In Poblenau, the superblock is situated among towers of subsidized housing, which keeps displacement pressures low.)

Slow going it may be. But for bringing lasting, radical change to the built environment, shortcuts are hard to come by. One study of an older superblock area found walking increased by 10 percent and cycling by 30 percent, while driving fell by 26 percent, as Feargus O’Sullivan reported in 2017. And in Poblenou, the complaints from skeptical residents have largely died down, according to Sílvia Casorrán of the Poblenou Neighbors Association. “Many people that were against it in the beginning … are now happy with it,” she told CityLab via email.

Meanwhile, according to Carles Peña, a member of the superblock advocacy group Col.lectiu Superilla Poblenou, the neighborhood is transformed. “It’s a slower rhythm of life,” Peña says in the film. “You rediscover your area, and your neighbors.”

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Improving Access to Urban Trails

The benefit of parks and trails is greatest for those who live closest to these resources, and a disparity in access can have significant health, social, and economic implications, while also exacerbating environmental justice concerns in communities.

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The Global Tourism Backlash

With summer travel season now in high gear, a number of the world’s cities are witnessing a backlash against tourism. Venice, Barcelona, San Sebastián (on the northern coast of Spain), and the island of Mallorca have seen anti-tourism protests aimed at visitors and cruise ships, along with graffiti slogans like “Tourists go home” and “Tourists are terrorists.” Protests have also sprung up in Auckland, New Zealand over double-decker sightseeing buses that clog the city’s streets. Some call this influx of visitors and the pressures it brings “over-tourism.”

The past decade or so has seen a surge in tourism, driven by a rising middle class across the world, especially in large emerging economies like China. Tourism has also become more affordable and accessible, with cheaper airfares and accommodations made possible through online booking services such as Airbnb. International tourism rose from fewer than 300 million trips in 1980 to some 500 million in 1995, before exploding to 1.3 billion trips in 2017—a number that’s expected to rise to 1.8 billion in 2030.

Much of this growth has been driven by China. In 2017, Chinese tourists made about 130 million trips abroad—a big jump from a decade ago. China also accounts for an estimated 80 percent of the growth in tourism spending over the past 10 or so years.

Chinese tourists take pictures across from the Houses of Parliament in London. (Kevin Coombs/Reuters)

Tourism is highly concentrated in a handful of destination cities around the world. Today, roughly half (46 percent) of all global tourism is concentrated in the top 100 cities, where tourism grew almost 25 percent faster than the worldwide rate. The world’s leading hotspots include Hong Kong, Bangkok, London, Singapore, Paris, Dubai, Istanbul, and New York. In 2016, New York City hosted more than 60 million tourists, up from 35 million in 2002. Tourism in London has also grown by 20 percent over the past several years, while tourism in Berlin more than doubled from 2005 (15 million) to 2016 (31 million).

City governments in some of these hotspots are trying to cope with so-called over-tourism. Venice and Dubrovnik have sought to restrict cruise ships. Amsterdam has tried to curtail tourist shops selling over-priced souvenirs and waffles. Reykjavik is reigning in the indecent behavior of tourists who pour in on cheap flights. Milan has temporarily banned food trucks and selfie sticks in one of its most-frequented neighborhoods. And Rome has prohibited people from eating or cavorting in public fountains, restricted drinking on the streets at night, and sought to limit tourists’ access to popular sites like the Trevi Fountain.

Other cities have tried to use tourist revenues to solve broader problems in a more inclusive fashion, as my colleagues Steven Pedigo and Aria Bendix at the NYU Urban Lab have pointed out. An estimated 22 countries have imposed some form of tourism tax. Historic Alexandria, Virginia, has raised local taxes on restaurant meals by 1 percent and is using the additional revenue for affordable housing. But there are ways to contend with over-tourism that avoid taxation: These include boosting public-private partnerships, improving mobility through new technology, and encouraging tourism operators to pay their workers higher wages.

Many cities have also cracked down on Airbnb, which has been found to increase rents by taking housing off the local market. Still, Airbnb is not as massive a threat as cities would like to believe. In the U.S., hotel occupancy saw its best year ever in 2017, despite the strong presence of online booking services. Rather than eliminate these services altogether, cities must find ways to regulate illegal and unlicensed Airbnb units. This can be accomplished through six-month-minimum leases in certain buildings or neighborhoods, or tracking short-term rental licenses, as is currently happening in Barcelona.

In truth, scapegoating tourism deflects attention away from the realities of the new urban crisis. Restricting the number of tourists or tourism-related activities will do little to solve the root problem of inequality. And on the most basic level, tourism and hospitality are a huge source of low-skill, port-of-entry jobs. Tourism accounts for roughly 10 percent of the world’s economic output. In many smaller and struggling places, it brings badly needed resources. This financial stimulus often comes in the form of hard currency, which can help alleviate distressed economic conditions.

Over the past few decades, the ascent of cities has brought more people—locals and tourists—back to urban centers and downtowns. This has been met by woefully inadequate housing development and extreme NIMBYism that further limits development in historic areas. Even government spending on vital infrastructure and public goods has failed to keep up with the basic needs of urban residents. Cities’ current struggle over tourism is not an isolated issue, but part of a broader set of problems that accompany the increasing attractiveness of cities.

Rather than limit tourism, cities must build more inclusive and sustainable places for residents, workers, and visitors alike. This means overcoming NIMBYism and land-use restrictions, constructing more affordable housing, regulating services like Airbnb, and investing in transit that everyone can use. Tourism revenues can also help fund necessary public goods such as bike lanes and parks.

Although the tourism industry is susceptible to the same divisions that plague our cities, it can be a vehicle for change. By recommitting to a fairer and more inclusive urbanism, cities can support a steady stream of tourist activity—while avoiding a fiercer backlash.

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Stopping White Supremacists From Taking Over An American City Again

It’s been almost a year since a hoard of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members tore through Charlottesville, torches blazing. The “Unite the Right” rally, led by white nationalist Jason Kessler and supported by an army of civilian militia, started at nearby University of Virginia’s campus on August 11, 2017, and poured into Charlottesville’s downtown by the next day. Amid racist chants and flying fists, a car accelerated through the crowd, killing counter-protestor Heather Heyer and injuring others.

While the national and local reckoning the rally compelled isn’t yet over, a more straightforward goal has also emerged for Charlottesville and other U.S. cities: shaping local policies and strengthening safety measures to prevent an uprising like this from happening again.

By that measure, a number of things have already changed. Charlottesville won a key legal settlement that gives the city some protection from a similar second rally and is already having an impact on permitting policies elsewhere. Confederate statues were removed in more than 100 cities. And in Charlottesville, the event spurred a major overhaul of local leadership, including ushering in the city’s first black mayor. In June, Heyer’s killer, James Alex Fields, Jr., was charged with 28 federal hate crimes in addition to his December first-degree murder charge. And the segment of 4th Street where she was hit has been renamed in her honor: Heather Heyer Way.

And yet, another August brings plans for another rally. Even as Kessler just formally withdrew his application for a permit to hold an anniversary rally in Charlottesville, he says he’s now directing full attention to an event in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Square, where protections differ.

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The Great Dockless Bikesharing Shakeout

Ofo is out: Just a year after launching 40,000 lemon-yellow bicycles in more than 30 different markets in the United States, the Chinese dockless bikesharing company is scaling back its operations and has laid off 70 percent of its North American operations team, as Quartz reported recently.

Ofo’s American journey ends where it began: Seattle. Last Monday, the City Council voted to make its pilot dockless bikesharing program permanent and made allowance for doubling the total bikes and e-scooters roaming the city to 20,000 vehicles. After the Emerald City’s docked bikeshare system, Pronto, went belly up in early 2017, the city became an exciting (and downright goofy) testing ground for the new experiment in dockless bikesharing. Up to four companies could remain in Seattle to duke it out for riders, but Ofo has bowed out, blaming the $50-per-bike permit fee.

“The exorbitant fees that accompany these new regulations—the highest in the country—make it impossible for ofo to operate and effectively serve our riders. And as a result, we will not be seeking a permit to continue operating in Seattle,” said Lina Feng, Ofo’s general manager in Seattle, in a statement after the City Council vote. (Note: The company eschews the upper-case.) “We’re incredibly disappointed to be leaving the first U.S. city to welcome ofo and thank the City for its partnership and support this last year.”

Add that to a long list of city regulatory obstacles that the China-based company has objected to. In Washington, D.C., it blamed a cap on the number of bikes. In Chicago, it was lock-to requirements. In New York City, the company bailed on filling CitiBike’s transit deserts. But the answer might be a bit simpler: The business model that brought the company success in China didn’t translate well to the United States.

In China, sheer saturation of city streets not only made for mesmerizing bike-graveyard photos: It succeeded in shifting car trips to dockless bikes. Ofo claimed 32 million trips every day on 10 million bikes across 250 Chinese cities; it was valued as a $2 billion business. But that density-driven strategy didn’t translate to market dominance in the U.S., even as Ofo introduced itself with month-long free-ride promo campaigns in most markets and big fleets of free-floating bicycles, a technique that one Twitter user compared to “street spam.”

CityLab talked to a former Ofo employee who was familiar with the company’s marketing strategy but asked not to be identified for this story as they search for a new job in the industry. “I think the culture of government and bike ridership in China is very different in the United States,” the ex-Ofo staffer said. “Cities felt they were behind the ball with regulating ride-sharing, and I think they were trying to catch up with bikeshare.”

But even in Dallas, where regulations were relatively lax, Ofo wasn’t able to gain market dominance over rivals LimeBike, Mobike, and Spin. The firms initially flooded Dallas with about 20,000 bikes, but scattered deployment across the sprawling city, combined with vandalism of bikes, eventually led them all to exit or scale back. “The Dallas experiment is a really good example where companies wanted to approach it as closely to China to gain dominant market share,” the former Ofo employee said. “Unlike with ride-sharing, the latent demand takes time to build up. Even without a cap, it couldn’t be realized, so we didn’t need that many bikes out there. That’s capitalism working—for once—the way that it’s supposed to.”

Dallas City Council passed regulations that included a $21 per bike fee in late June. Ofo brought its Dallas fleet down to a more manageable 1,000 bikes about six weeks ago, before departing the city altogether. Now only 3,500 bikes remain in the city between LimeBike and local dockless company, VBikes.

Ofo will continue with a small footprint in some markets, such as San Diego, the University of Denver, the Phoenix metro area, and College Station, Texas. As it exits other cities, Ofo does have plans to recycle the bikes it leaves behind. “As we wind down select markets, we remain committed to environmental sustainability and will continue to donate ofo bikes in good working condition to local communities and recycle all bikes when they’re beyond repair or no longer able to use,” said Taylor Bennett, spokesperson for Ofo North America. “In Dallas, we’re donating ofo bikes to City Square and Bikes for Tykes, as well as working with Commercial Metals Company to recycle the bikes.”

So what does this pullback mean for the state of private dockless bikesharing in the U.S.? Dana Yanocha of the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy thinks that, going forward, U.S. cities need to be strategic about how, and if, they partner with private companies. “Cities, you need to really think about what they want bikeshare to do and why they have a bikeshare program in the first place,” Yanocha said. “It’s not just to have a bikeshare program. It’s hopefully to achieve some larger mobility and accessibility goals. That includes choosing a type of operator that’s going to get you to those goals. There’s no free lunch.”

That also includes balancing the public interest through caps, fees, and other regulations. “The heart of the issue is that private companies are essentially using city resources—they’re using streets and cycling infrastructure and public space to park bikes, and it doesn’t really make sense for cities to give those resources away for free,” Yanocha said.

Jeffrey Dowson, a professor of investment at Peking University who has studied the sharing economy in China, sees Ofo’s pullback as a sign that a Chinese-style bikesharing is unlikely to succeed in a more regulated environment. “It’s not like rolling out Netflix and just putting bikes on the street,” he said. “Everyone got confused by the word ‘sharing,’ because there’s no sharing going on. It’s a rental business with a very cool app. But the economics of it are closer to vending machines—it doesn’t scale the same way and it doesn’t throw off cash the same way, because you have to buy millions of bikes as you grow.”

Some of the most promising bikeshare startups have found partner companies to take them to the bigger mobility-as-service dance—Uber bought Jump, Lyft bought Motivate, and both Google and Uber joined fundraising rounds for LimeBike on the heels of e-scooter mania. (Chris Taylor, formerly Ofo’s head of North American operations, joined the e-scooter company Bird, before the North American team layoffs, as Forbes reported.)

But Ofo hasn’t found anyone to tag along with—yet. It’s still possible that DiDi Chuxing (the Uber of China) might buy the bike company with Ant Financial, Alibaba’s finance subsidiary, as Reuters reported Friday. Rumors about merging with Mobike have also swirled around—but those hopes were dashed after Mobike sold for $2.7 billion in April to China’s version of Yelp and Groupon, Meituan-Dianping.

Companies like Uber, Lyft, and DiDi Chuxing or even other sharing companies like Airbnb have the potential to grow because they offer a platform for connect things that already exist to a network. “It’s very cool to offer a mobility ecosystem, where you can go on to get a car or a bike within that ecosystem,” said Dowson. “But if you’re trying to stand alone, you’re not competitive. I’m not sure bikesharing on its own is a competitive thing.”

Yanocha agrees. “We don’t know for sure that you know bikeshare doesn’t have to be operated without a subsidy,” she said. “If private companies aren’t able to turn a profit and make this work, then maybe we’ll see it going back to the more traditional public-private partnership model.”

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How a Political Crisis Fueled an Urban Planner’s Mayoral Campaign

On the last Friday of July, less than six hours before the registration deadline to run for Mayor of Toronto, the city’s former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, was at her office and checking Twitter.

The night before, the Toronto Star had broken news that the recently elected Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, planned to dynamite Toronto’s upcoming municipal election, slashing the number of available council seats from 47 to 25, effective immediately.

After years of study and public consultation, the city had just finished redrawing its ward boundaries ensure more equal representation. Under Ford’s plan, announced with no warning, some councillors elected this fall could end up representing more than 100,000 people—more than the population of some Canadian territories. “I heard the story break… on Thursday evening and saw it unfold on the Friday morning,” said Keesmaat. “I had been in an early-morning meeting and it was when I came out of that meeting that everything became crystal clear.”

“It was very much the last straw,” she said. “All of those concerns that have been building and building over many months… culminated in that moment.” Keesmaat cycled to city hall, joined the line at the city clerk’s office, and put her name on the ballot for the October 7 election.

“We’re spinning our wheels on transit, we’re not advancing transit even close to as aggressively as we should be to be keeping up with the pace of growth in the city,” she said that Friday. “The affordable housing crisis is absolutely a top priority for the city… and public safety, in terms of the violence we’ve seen on our streets, and road safety.”

Before making a last-minute decision to face incumbent Mayor John Tory in an election, Keesmaat was the City of Toronto’s chief planner from 2012 to 2017. She was instrumental in shepherding a number of urban improvements through a skeptical city council. The King Street transit pilot, which currently limits auto traffic on the city’s busiest streetcar route, was approved during her tenure. So were some the city’s most popular bike lanes, along Richmond and Adelaide streets.

However, she was also in charge of planning when council decided to spend more than a billion dollars rebuilding a lightly-used section of elevated waterfront expressway. The titanically expensive one-stop subway extension into Scarborough was also approved while she was at city hall.

Mayor John Tory criticized Keesmaat for speaking out publicly against those decisions, but she was unapologetic, earning a reputation for expressing her opinion even when politicians preferred she did not.

“You’re not appointed the chief planner to sit on the fence,” she said at the time in 2015. “You’re supposed to give your best professional advice on all of these issues large and small.”

However, asked last week she would not say whether she would revisit those issues if she were to be elected, saying only that she would be releasing “a full and comprehensive policy platform” shortly.

At the time of writing, Keesmaat has offered very few specifics about her campaign other than promising “bold” ideas on transit, affordability, and public safety at a later date.

The new mayor, whoever it is, will be forced to reckon with a growing financial problem at city hall. The city manager has repeatedly warned council about the city’s financial position—simply not enough revenue to match expenses–and it has been told to find ways to generate more money.

John Tory and previous mayor Rob Ford have avoided raising property taxes (the city’s main source of revenue) above inflation and have generally been shy about creating new taxes. But the city’s transit and community housing systems are facing repair backlogs in the billions of dollars and city services are perennially underfunded.

One of the ways Keesmaat thinks the city could raise more money is by asking developers to pay more. Over the last eight years, Toronto has been the center of one of the largest building booms in North America, sprouting hundreds of new condominiums and office buildings.

“When I was chief planner … we raised the planning fee,” she said. “That was win-win. Everyone was very happy with that outcome and that’s a perfect example of the kind of innovate ways we can deliver city services.”

Another challenge for the new mayor will be Premier Doug Ford, the older brother of the controversial and now-deceased former mayor, Rob Ford. Doug was a city councillor during Rob Ford’s tempestuous, drug-scandalized term as mayor from 2010 to 2014, but, until being elected Premier June 7, had not held any other political office.

Like his brother, he’s brash, has little regard for convention, and appears to have a particular distaste for Toronto’s left-leaning city councillors and progressive city-building agendas.

Keesmaat says liberal and conservative politicians like Ford actually have a good deal of shared interests. There’s a financial argument to be made for good public transit, she mentions as an example. “That’s one of the things that I’ve done in my professional life is I’ve worked across the political spectrum and with players of all stripes and colours and at all levels of government.”

“I can truly work with a whole variety of different people, and I can absolutely work with Doug Ford,” she said. If elected, she’ll have no choice. Ontario has considerable power over its municipalities, even ones as large as City of Toronto that has more than 2.8 million residents and an $11-billion operating budget.

Ford has the ability to blow up an active Toronto election on a whim, as he already made clear last month. If he gets his way, city council may be much more suburban and conservative than it already is. What’s more, it’s likely Doug Ford will find other ways to hobble Canada’s largest city and Ontario’s economic heart in the years to come. “Someone said to me a few days ago: ‘It always feels like Toronto is an underachiever of a city, Toronto is never quite meeting its full potential,’” Keesmaat said. “And that’s very much what I’m seeking to address in this campaign, to present a vision that’s bolder, that’s about Toronto really reaching for its full potential.”

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The Long Road to Mexico City’s First Elected Woman Mayor

When Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo takes office in December, it will be the culmination of an historic moment: Last month, she became the first woman elected mayor of Mexico City, winning 47 percent of the vote in a crowded field.

Sheinbaum’s election was a moment a long time in the making according to Ximena Andion, the executive director of the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute in Mexico City, which runs programs on reproductive rights, women’s economic autonomy and political participation.

“What happened in Mexico City is the result of a movement during the last 20 years, led by feminists and women in politics,” said Andion. Her institute operates a program to build women’s political participation, which includes workshops for political parties and government entities.

Beginning in 1996 Mexico mandated gender quotas for the federal legislative branch. Women’s representation has gradually increased, and they make up 48 percent of the incoming Congress. (By contrast, in the United States, women surpassed 20 percent of the Congress for the first time this April.) The 1996 law required at least 30 percent of candidates to be women; in 2006 the quota went up to 40 percent and then in 2014, to gender parity. Political pressure from women’s rights groups precipitated each change.

When Mexico City drafted its first Constitution in 2016 and 2017, feminist organizations saw it as an opportunity to take quotas one step further. The city solicited feedback from a 100-member assembly and invited residents to propose ideas via The constitution includes important changes to give more autonomy to the city, which as a “federal district,” had limited decision-making power.

“Mexico City’s constitution goes even further, because it extends parity to the executive branch and the judicial branch,” says Andion. “That was unprecedented in Mexico.”

The constitution will go into effect this September and includes the right to abortion and same-sex marriage. It also mandates that half of the positions in Mexico City’s 22-person cabinet go to women. Andion says that instead of tokenizing women, Sheinbaum has named them to roles typically given to men. The incoming Finance Secretary, for example, is Luz Elena González Escobar, an economist with expertise in public administration.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo prepares for an interview in Mexico City, August 1, 2018.  (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

Sheinbaum’s election comes as women’s traditional roles in Mexican politics are being questioned. She ran on the ticket of the National Regeneration Movement’s coalition (Morena), which also won the presidency and a strong majority in the federal and city legislatures. The wife of president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, says she will not run the Integral Family Development Office (DIF), akin to a federal welfare office, which is the role the First Lady traditionally holds. Gutiérrez Müller, who holds a PhD in literary theory, has also rejected the title of First Lady, calling it “classist.”

From a Jewish family of academics (Sheinbaum will also be the city’s first Jewish mayor—her grandparents emigrated from Lithuania and Bulgaria), Sheinbaum trained as an engineer, obtaining both her master’s degree and doctorate in energy engineering at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), where she now teaches. As a doctoral student, she received a grant to carry out research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

Sheinbaum’s first turn in public service was from 2000 to 2006, when she served as Environmental Secretary in the city government led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now president-elect of Mexico. In that role, she led the construction of the Metrobus, Mexico’s first Rapid Transit Bus line.

The mayor-elect has more challenges ahead. While Mexico City is an international destination for design, gastronomy and art, the capital faces complex social and environmental challenges.

Mexico City holds the dubious distinction of the most congested city in the world, according to Tom Tom’s Traffic Index. Strict emissions regulations have driven down air pollution levels since the 1990s, but contamination began to climb up again during the previous mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera’s administration. Sheinbaum has named a mobility secretary, Andrés Lajous, a former journalist with a degree in public planning from Massachusetts Institute of Techonology. He says they have ambitious plans to expand the Metrobus BRT system, build Mexico City’s first cable cars for mass transit, and improve cycling infrastructure

Water is another perennial problem, as aging infrastructure leads to spotty service in many peripheral neighborhoods. The September 19, 2017, earthquake killed hundreds in Mexico City and exposed ongoing deficiencies in earthquake-preparedness. Sheinbaum was serving as district mayor of the Tlalpan neighborhood in Mexico City at the time. Her district was one of the hardest hit, and more than 20 children and adults died in a school collapse that some attributed to shoddy construction. Sheinbaum’s critics see this as a lapse in building oversight and a major failing of her tenure.

As mayor, Sheinbaum is expected to take a pragmatic, technical approach to many of these issues. Instead of career bureaucrats, many of the incoming cabinet secretaries she has selected have decades of experience in academia or the non-profit sector. And Sheinbaum sent a clear message that gender issues will be at the heart of her administration when she announced she would upgrade the Women’s Institute to be a Secretariat. She named Gabriela Rodríguez, a feminist and reproductive rights activist, to lead it.

“Becoming a Secretariat helps us integrate gender into all the institutions of government,” says Rodríguez. “We will be at the same table with all the other secretaries.”

With crime on the rise in Mexico City and nationally, women often feel the brunt of the violence. In 2017, 1,085 homicides were reported in the capital, the highest total since 2007. In the June 2018 National Urban Security Survey, more than 90 percent of Mexico City residents said they felt unsafe in their city. Street harassment of women is ubiquitous. Many viewed Mancera’s strategies to combat harassment, including distributing whistles, as lip service.

Rodríguez’s vision for the Secretariat focuses on reducing violence towards women. She says that rhetoric and legislation in favor of women needs to be put into practice. Impunity is a nation-wide problem and in Mexico City about 60 percent of reported crimes go unsolved.

“In Mexico, we make very pretty laws,” she says. “But we don’t apply them.”

“My goal of lowering gendered violence depends a lot on who is in the Prosecutor’s Office,” she says. “There have always been misogynist prosecutors…Traditionally cases of gendered violence are discredited, and the culprits are released.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Rodríguez, 65, is energized to hold public office for the first time. “It would have been more relaxing to stay home and look after my granddaughters,” she says. “But I was invited to join the cabinet, and I couldn’t say no. Contributing in this moment is an honor.”

If the incoming administration’s plans sound ambitious, at least they have the country’s new president on their side. For the first time, a left party has been elected to power both in Mexico City and at the federal level. Since working together in the city government, López Obrador and Sheinbaum are close associates. In 2014, Sheinbaum was one of the first to join López Obrador’s new party, Morena, after he split from the traditional left-wing party, PRD. While not everyone sees this closeness as a good thing—some say they are too cozy—Rodríguez sees it as progress.

“Going back 20 years since the left took power in Mexico City, we have always had an adversarial relationship with the federal government,” says Rodríguez, who cut her teeth in the women’s movement. “It’s the first time that there’s a synergy to work together.”

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CityLab Daily: The Case for Rooms

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


What We’re Following

Room for debate: Someone had to say it. There are some major downsides to the open floor plan trend in American homes that lets noise echo across wall-free interiors. Kate Wagner, the author of the architecture blog McMansion Hell, looks to history to explain how we got here in the first place.

The conventional narrative is that houses in the United States once had floor plans that were closed, and then began opening up, shifting from the formal “hall-and-parlor” to a more compact home design. But that narrative derives from an affluent class. In working-class homes, an opposite progression occurred, with more walls emerging as families grew. It seems rooms prevailed for good reason: They make a lot of sense, from both an environmental and a living perspective. For CityLab, Wagner argues that true freedom might mean putting up a few barriers.

Andrew Small

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Drake’s Latest Video Is a Throwback to a New Orleans That No Longer Exists

“In My Feelings” surfaces the places where you can find a good po’ boy. That’s great for the tourist, but doesn’t mean so much for the people and cultures that define the soul of the city.

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Is All American Politics Really National Now?

There’s much we gloss over when talking about the role of place in our politics.

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Animals Feel the Strain of Europe’s Heatwave

They’re getting shoes, taking shelter in tunnels, and finding other ways to keep cool in the dangerous heat.

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Talked Up

(Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Seth Rogen is now the voice of public transit in Vancouver and Toronto. And with the comedy actor joining the ranks of public transit announcers who often become local celebrities in their own right, Team CityLab assembled our own nominations of who should remind riders to “mind the gap” or at least, mind their manners. Our suggestions spanned the gamut, from Judi Dench for the London Tube to Queen Latifah for Newark Light Rail.

Now we want to hear from you, CityLab readers! Who would you like to hear as the voice of the PSAs on your commute? Send us a line at

What We’re Reading

Taxi and Uber drivers are united in backing a cap on ride-hail vehicles (New York Times)

Flood thy neighbor: One Missouri town’s levee saga (ProPublica)

In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich but rise for the poor (Washington Post)

The outsize hold of the word “welfare” on the public imagination (New York Times)

Some businesses are refusing to hire DACA recipients. They are fighting back. (Vox)

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